Opinion: Insight from a Latina who is ‘not Latina enough’
Yaritza Croussett, Julio Ricardo Varela, Graciela Tiscanero-Sato and Sharon Abramzon talked about being "Latino enough."
February 1st, 2012
07:19 PM ET

Opinion: Insight from a Latina who is ‘not Latina enough’

Editor’s Note: Lili Gil is a businesswoman with expertise in marketing to Hispanics. She is co-founder and managing partner of XL Alliance, a business strategy and marketing firm dedicated to help business leaders and corporations navigate and enter emerging multicultural markets. Gil was recently selected to be a World Economic Young Global Leader. She is on Twitter @liligil.

By Lili Gil, Special to CNN

What comes to mind when you think of Latinos? Is it exotic beauties, great dancing, loud music, big families, illegals, all or some of the above? Is it poor, disadvantaged, short and brown?

The truth is 53% of all Hispanics in the U.S. self-identify as white, but unfortunately a world of media that over- emphasizes issues of immigration and drug trafficking have often tainted the true colors and stories of those who call themselves “Latinos.”

I am a strategist and marketer who makes a living demystifying the world of Latinos for America’s CEO’s and decision makers. It is my life’s quest to understand true Latino identity.

I then take my information, and try to make advertisers and business leaders understand who we really are, and why they should take the time to get to know us. As you can imagine, this quest of mine is incredibly complex.

There are numbers, facts and statistics that help answer my questions, and explain why the broader population should pay attention to Latinos: In the U.S. we are more than 50 million strong, accounting for more than half of the U.S. population growth between 2000 – 2010, and represent $1 trillion in buying power according to advertising researchers. That’s not insignificant, but somehow it is not enough to break through the common stereotypes of the people I meet each day.  

This is why I have dedicated a 15-year career to drive the business case for multicultural inclusiveness and Latinos as an engine for growth. Ironically, it was my naïve experience as a young immigrant that triggered what has turned today into a professional mission.

As an 18-year-old foreign college student in a small private college in northern Texas, I was confused by off comments from my classmates: “You are not Mexican? But you speak Spanish!” When my answer was “I am Colombian,” the conversation would take a downhill turn since that equated to dealing drugs followed by the assumption that I should be washing dishes at the school cafeteria. They were surprised when they learned I was an international “immigrant” student - with a student visa - whose parents were required to pay a full year of tuition in cash up front! That boggled their minds. They had trouble accepting I was a ‘true Latino’ - or ‘Latino enough.’

Did I let the stereotype discourage me? No. In fact, it was the catalyst to educate, get involved and elevate the voice of who we are.

How about unveiling that tall, educated and even affluent Latinos do exist? After all, college enrollment has increased by 24% and the $100,000-plus household-income segment grew 221% to represent 17% of Hispanics in theUnited States. Also, approximately 62% of Latinos in America are U.S.born making them a large percentage of “citizens” who are diverse, bicultural and bilingual, and proud to call themselves Americans and Latinos, too.

In the midst of confusion, much strength has emerged binding together people from over 20-countries of origin and diverse races represented by one term: LATINOS. Today the term has evolved to carry the strength of a unified community; reclaiming its position, heritage and representation as students, workers, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and valuable members of American society. Maybe the stories behind these numbers are not as exciting or not “Latino enough” to be told, but today we are getting a peek into their life experience in America.

A quick posting on Being Latino, one of the largest Facebook group for Latinos in the United States, resulted in a flood of responses from Latinos dealing with the issue. Over a dozen testimonials revealed that “not being Latino enough” is not just about not looking the part, but also about not behaving the part.

Graciela Tiscanero-Sato, a Being Latino fan responded to the issue of not being Latina enough as follows, “Oh yeah...look at my picture and you'll see that. ‘You don't look Mexican’ has been uttered in the U.S. Air Force where I flew as aircrew (not many Latinas in cockpits), while working in Silicon Valley for [a] German company, on and on... Then there's my sister, an actress, who gets told ‘you don't look ethnic/Latina enough’ when she tries out for Spanish-language commercials and such! I think on mainstream TV that if you don't help 'them' reinforce their stereotype, they don't want you.”

For Harvard graduate Julio Ricardo Varela, his journey has not only cornered him in the “not so Latino” camp for his education but also in the classist camp among his own fellow Hispanics in theBronx.

“…there is this belief that "white" Latinos (what a silly label, since my family is a bit of everything: North African, Corsican, Italian, Spanish, Moorish), have it easier because they don't 'look' Latino. Growing up in Puerto Rico, where racism is subtle and generally class-based, and then in The Bronx, where people looked down at my background as being too elitist, I just know that everything I have earned in my life (Harvard, a successful professional career, a loving family and strong network of dear friends) has come through never sacrificing who I am or accommodating myself to others. In life, you must be true to yourself and answer to yourself. Without a core belief in yourself, you just follow the crowd and pay attention to labels. I pay attention to me and try to help others in any way I can.”

Sharon Abramzon, a proud Colombian of Jewish decent has both benefited and struggled with looking “too white” for a Latina.

“I am lucky to be able to blend into different cultures, which helps in business and socially. It’s also quite comical to surprise people when I break out in Español during a conversation. I am quite proud to be a Colombian Latina, and I think it is great to bring to light that the Latin culture is also a wonderful melting pot of races and religions. On the other hand, having to prove my 'Latinoness' is also part of that. (Naturally, after I speak in Spanish and tell people where I was born, I finally get the OK nod).”

On one side many deal with the label of being “too white,” while others juggle being too dark for a Latino. This is the case of many afro-Latinos like Yaritza Croussett, an occupational therapist of Dominican decent who lives in the D.C. area.

“I was told BY LATINOS that I was too 'black' to be Latina... they also asked where did I learn to speak Mexican? Oh the joys of growing up in Texas,” said Croussett who grew up as a minority within minorities after being the only “black girl” in a high schoolof Mexican-Americans in the Rio GrandeValley. Ironically all along, she shared proudly the same label “Latina” as her friends of Mexican descent.

Oh, the wonders of Latino heritage! Twenty years ago, young Hispanics fought to blend in and acculturate, while today many are retro acculturating and reclaiming their new found label: I AM LATINO… AND PROUD!

Clearly, in the midst of many differences, there is a unifying thread of values of faith, family, culture and language that makes them worth knowing. And as they grow in number, power and influence the world should get to know who they are – in all their hues, in all their pride and in all their value as people who love America and their heritage as much as you do. Will you give yourself a chance to rethink Latino? You will be surprised.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Lili Gil.

soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. malditamona

    I'm Chilean and I have been living in the US for nearly five years, and I have encountered this issue several times. Fortunately, it has been more of an eye opener to my US friends, since they truly believed in the Latino stereotype, but I proved that we come in all shapes, sizes, and "colors" (they also thought that we are all good cooks, I had to disappoint them, since I hate cooking....my bad!). However, I must say that there have been many times that as soon as I mentioned the fact that I come from South America, some people change their perception of me and my skin tone, even though I am almost as pale as a vampire. I honestly don't understand why we worry so much about the color of our skin. Are people even aware what's the function of the skin anyway? it's just skin... it's a shield. It shouldn't have to determine where we stand in the world. As vulgar as this might sound, we all poop the same.

    February 6, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
  2. LISA C

    She sated that 53% of all Hispanics in the U.S. self-identify as white...why are we having this convo??? I guess because the 47% that us left is upset about not being albe to say they are white????

    February 6, 2012 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
    • that brown white guy

      I believe her purpose is trying to highlight the fact that many adolescents are in a theoretical "no-man's" land with regards to this; for example, my parents consider me white-washed (i love rock, have only date white girls, and other mannerisms/beliefs i have such as being prochoice blah blah) but fundamentally I AM Colombian and would never forsake it, much like I would never foresake America. It is just an opinion post....this fact will never change due to the acculturation and assimilation that we as Americans love. Melting pot, and proud of it!

      February 6, 2012 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |

    We urge these politicians to STOP dividing us into groups for their own gains, and treat us as AMERICANS

    February 4, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • jrachelle

      Absolutely. We're American. The light, dark, thin, tall, etc... is Exactly what makes us Americans.

      February 4, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
      • that brown white guy

        don't forget, handsome 😉

        February 6, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  4. Pianoman

    dang, a white, straight, male has no hoildays or month or parade or chance

    February 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alexander

      Everyday is white mans' day. Look at those in global power. They allow minorities to celebrate holidays and claim appreciation of diversity.

      February 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
      • jrachelle

        "They allow minorities to celebrate holidays and claim appreciation of diversity." Are you serious? I don't what skin tone or culture you are, you do not have to get permission from any "white man" to celebrate. As long as it is not illegal you can celebrate any holiday you want. Sounds like you need to allow yourself a little more freedom. It's there, take it.

        February 11, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  5. DSBsky

    Man you Latinos are getting more racist every day. Even more so than blacks with their BET and ebony magazines that directly promote racism. All you people seem to want to do is focus on yourself instead of humanity. I am loosing more and more respect for the latin community every year.

    You people are not the center of the universe and you need to stop thinking you are.. For example, try having one of you Latino writers make a column that doesn't just stress latino relations and latino, latino, latino, latino.. You sound like a broken record. A racist, broken record. Makes me sick how great you think you are and how little you focus on anything other than latin racial problems. They call that racism..

    February 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam

      You're the racist! Get over yourself! Any one in the world has a right to speak of their heritage! You're just jealous because you have nothing in your background to relate to.....sounds like a personal problem! And, Hello! Latinas and Latinos are great! Great looking, great food, great music, great at so many things! Try being something else other than so jealous!

      February 4, 2012 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • that brown white guy

      "You guys" represents the fundamental issue we are trying to paint for you: we ARE you! I'm not calling you a racist, but just know, even now, we have a fun time trying to balance both worlds. Ya'll whities havent had to deal with that since WE broke off from GB (WE cus i'm AMERICAN-COLOMBIAN and proud).

      February 6, 2012 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
      • Anya

        "y'all whites" and you claim not to be a bigot...got it. He says something you disagree with and you pull the snide "I am not SAYING your a racist", when in fact you are.

        February 14, 2012 at 5:45 am | Report abuse |
  6. jrachelle

    Totally agree with DH (first comment) Tired of hearing it all. We are collectively Americans. I read this because I thought I might hear something new and fresh. Instead, tired old song. Bottom line, we are ALL different. Not all latinos are the same, nor are whites, blacks, asians or middle easterners. I understand wanting to associate in cultures that are familiar and comfortable for you. Religion, wealth class, mensas, redheads, or artists. Who cares. We just need to learn to respect others and accept the difference.

    February 3, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. DH

    ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.......not another story on being black enough or gay enough or white enough or blue enough or fat enough or tall enough.... And before you bleedinghearts start with the 'you didn't have to read this so why comment' comments, let me say, you are right. I want that 3 minutes of my life back!

    February 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Alejandro

    I only wanted to point out that it seems that what people in the US mean by Latinos are mainly Latin Americans north of the Equator (aproximately). There is a Southern Hemisphere too. The countries of the South have their own diversity. For instance, Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country... These countries are far away from the US, and indeed, the British Empire arrived first to fill in the void left by the collapse of the Spanish Empire. And so on... there are huge numbers of Italian-Hispanics/Brazilians that mixed with the Spaniards/Portuguese, giving a new meaning to being Latin... well, not new at all, as it closer to being Roman! Of course, there are large numbers of Amerindian comunities (think of the Inca empire) and Africans that contributed a lot to the diversity... plus Germans, British, French, Slavs, Arabs, East Asians...

    February 3, 2012 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
  9. ytuque

    I don't look white, but I always took offense when I was referred to as a Chicano. To me, a Chicano is Cheech Marin in character as Cheech.

    February 3, 2012 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
  10. Charly Brains

    To be latino or not be latino? that is teh real question (for those latinos/hispanics who live here in the U.S. and don't quite fit the appearance of being one). And also the answer goes along with, depending on whether it helps you or not (along with the values), to deal with the situation you are facing at that moment... In other words: if it is convienient then you are one if not then you aren't.
    Ser latino o no ser latino? esa es la verdadera pregunta (para todos aquellos hispanos/latinos que viven en los U.S. y no encajan en la aparicencia de ser uno). Y tambien la respuesta va junto a, dependiendo si te ayuda o no (junto con los valores ), a tratar con la situación que se esta teniendo en ese momento... En otras palabras: si te conviene entonces eres latino sino, no lo eres.

    February 3, 2012 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
  11. Andres

    @ yvonne corona lerma & @John Verdejo: ¿y tu abuela donde esta? Because of how American ( All the America’s society has from Slavery, People in Puerto Rico who looked lighter skinned would hide their African looking Grandmother in the kitchen when guess or outsides came in. In America (US) one of African Blood made you Black so that you could be resold and slave masters could reduce the cost of acquiring new slaves. The fact is Spain, Portugal, Southern France and Most of the old Roman Empire grew of Africa and were approximately 30-40 % of what we now call Africa or being Black. A language or where you were born doesn’t make you a race. I personally believe Race does not exist. Culturally, most of what we call HISPANIC a word derived in the 1960 to describe Blacks who spoke Spanish was created for the 1960 census and it is distinguished from Spanish Who are European and Mexican who are an admixture of Native Americans, Africans and Europeans. Yes 20-30% of all Mexicans are mixed twice with African, the Spanish ( European and African admixture, yes not all the Moors went back to Africa, it is like saying because Liberia and Sierra Leon Exist there are no Africans descendants in the America’s) and African Slaves. Race is defined differently in other countries other than the US. If I were to walk into each nation in the America’s my race would change from Black to White to Native. What we call Hispanic’s and American Blacks should probably be considered “Pan-Africans” since we share a common culture and genetic Heritage over several different languages admixed with Native and Europeans. Language wise SPANISH speakers are not just Latin or Hispanic the language in the original diffinition included French, Portuguese & Spanish.

    February 3, 2012 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
  12. Rudy Venegas

    Words of a song I once heard: "If youse white, it's alright, If youse brown,then stick around, but if youse black, GET BACK, GET BACK, GET BACK" I'm Mexican and proud of it, but I sign as white, because there is no such thing as a BROWN RACE! What bothers me the most, is when I see a licence plate frame that states: "Pround to be French, or proud to be Italian, Greek, even Puerto Rican...but do you ever see one that says "Proud to be Mexican"? One would be laughed at! America is made of people that only regard the lightest skinned to be trusted. Its a shame, but true....

    February 3, 2012 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Isa

      I get your point, but think about the countries you used as an example: Greece, Italy, Puerto Rico. Talk about a variety of skin colors! Many dark, many light, many in between. Maybe rethink your argument.

      February 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Indie

    How can one ever be Latino enough? The definition or stereotype of a latino comes from persepective. Someone in NY may have a very Puerto Rican or Dominican idea of a latino; whereas someone in Texas, has a Mexican in mind; and a Floridian, can only picture a Cuban. These are extremely different cultures.
    As a "latina", I completely dislike the "latino" label. Latin America is composed of many countries all with different histories, traditions, foods, culture, each country even has its own version of the language. You don't even hear of people of European-descent; it's always.. Irish, Italian, German, etc. precisely because of these differences.
    All latinos are not the same; some not necessarily better or worse, just different.

    February 3, 2012 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Alberto

      You hit the nail in the head!

      February 3, 2012 at 8:26 am | Report abuse |
  14. Delusional

    The problem is people confuse Latino/Hispanic for a race when it is a panethnicity. Latin America is a melting pot of color and culture, but instead of speaking English, they speak Spanish. Latino is a cultural marker not a racial one. Sorry but no one will ever confuse Sammy Sosa for a white person or Christina Aguilera for a black person. Race is a social construct based on a hierarchy of power and privilege and applied to individuals using physical features and assumed heritage. The only time Latino ever seems to work as a race is for those who look neither white nor black. There is great report that was done after the 2000 census by the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the University at Albany that provides some good examples of how race differentially impacts Latinos.

    February 2, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
  15. BarrazaRaul

    I am not going to comment on the story itself. However, I will thank CNN for providing this special edition to your readers. As a Latino/Latin American Studies undergraduate at Northeastern Illinois University, I am fascinated by this publication. I believe that it is critical to start educating our students and population in gender related issues.
    As the 2010 Census demonstrated, Latinos are the nation’s fastest growing minority. It is important to analyze the impact that Latinos have and will have in our society. With Mexico’s drug war, immigration policies and perhaps local gang violence in American urban cities, the American media has portrayed all brown skin/ Spanish speaking individuals as a negative ethnic group. However, the media never mentions the positive stories that are occurring throughout our nation.
    We as a country have seen the importance of integrating Latinos to American society. Research indicates that Latinos are the slowest assimilation group that has ever been incorporated into America. Yet, by the third generation the children of these people have fully adapted to the American culture.
    Therefore, my advice would be to be patient with Latinos. Work with them in order to fasten their integration into the American way of life. After all, it is safe to say that they are the REAL AMERICANS. Once again thanks CNN.

    February 2, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Dina

    People need to get educated in the States as people that were raised here don't know much about other countries and confuse nationality and race.

    February 2, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC


      February 4, 2012 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
      • jrachelle

        I agree and I'd like to see it broken down even further. I do not like all inclusive statements about an entire nation / race / color / age / or even height of people. We have to recognize all are different. It may be a group of Mexicans, a percentage of the white population or a more specific number of people from Puerto Rico. Don't care who they are, just stop thinking and acting as if all people of a certain group are alike.

        February 4, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
      • Mara

        You have my sympathy. Part of the problem is that open-border, pro-crime groups tend to be hispanic-centric. Since the vast majority of illegal aliens are of hispanic ethnicity, and the biggest cheerleaders for those illegal aliens tends toward hispanic 'rights' groups, then ALL hispanics must support illegal migration. And it doesn't help that hispanic families tend to be of mixed legal-illegal too. When excuses and accomodations are made for these illegals, it gives the (false) impression that *their* contempt and disregard of the law is part of the hispanic culture. And groups like LaRaza, Maldef, Mexies without Borders, etc don't help the situation.

        February 6, 2012 at 11:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Sam

      Exactly......most people in the U.S. believe there is only Black, White,Mexican, and Chinese. Try confusing someone to no end by asking where Taiwan is....or Malaysia is.......they will think you're talking about a disease! Then ask the ultimate...where is Samoa ? Who lives there? LOL....you'll love the answers! But, it will prove how ignorant people are and they do not even want to learn of the world on their own!

      February 4, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
  17. Rachel

    I'm too "white" to be a Latina as well but I am not talking about color. I am lighter than the girl in the picture but I'm not exactly blonde. More Selena Gomez than Selena (who I had no clue existed until she died). What I am talking about is culturally. I grew up in a totally mutli-culti area of LA in the 80s where the population was 1/3 Asian, 1/3 Latino and 1/3 White – due to a lack of majority we all became assimilated. KROQ and KMET ruled the airwaves. No one watched telenovelas or channel 18. We all wore OP and later Guess. We were Goth, Metal, Punk and New Wave. Depeche Mode and Motley Crue ruled the hallways. We had no clue that Rock en Español existed. I always thought I was white. My birth certificate says I'm white. Since I didn't grow up amongst one group of people and I sound like a Valley girl, people outside of LA all think I'm white. . No one has ever said anything about me at least not until I was grown and out in the workforce after college. Things like "how did your mother manage to raise you 'white'" Maybe because I started out that way.

    February 2, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Raiderx

      So what is your point sounds like your comfortable being white. Are you ashamed that you are Latin?I think you are.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
      • JOSE0311USMC


        February 4, 2012 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
      • JOSE0311USMC


        February 4, 2012 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Alejandro

      Down here in Argentina we say Rock in Castellano. Castellano is the original name of the language from central Spain (the medieval Kingdom of Castile/Reino de Castilla). To us Español would be the standard variety from (Northern) Spain or some ecclectic mixture of dialects from the northern half of Latin America. Español is largely foreign to us, as Argentina and the other Southern countries didn't contribute a single bit to it. That's the price we pay for being on the other side of the world! 😉

      February 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC


      February 4, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  18. Oscar

    The whole latino, based on colors, is completely ignorant, like assuming all latinos are mexicans. Being latino it's just a matter of geography, and history. We just happen to live or born in a part of America (yes, the whole continent, from the North Pole to the South Pole, it's called America) that were discovered and conquered by europeans coming, mostly, from Spain, France, and Portugal, instead of England, Ireland, Scandinavia, or Germany.

    February 2, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Alberto

    I think the issue is that we have been placed into a race by the US government. Latino or Hispanic which it doesn't make any sense.. My ancestors are from Spain and if you don't know you would never guess the I am "Hispanic". How can a language or where you where born make you a certain race? I had a white woman asked me "what are. You?". I asked her what do you think? She asked me where I was born and replied Venezuela, she said oh you are Venezuelan race. I said interesting so what are you, she proudly said AMERICAN, by the way I am an American citizen. I asked her so that black person standing right here was born in the USA and he is an American so you are the same race? She looked at me puzzled and said well no! I asked her then what are you saying, you don't make sense.
    My point is that this is a complicated topic due to our point of view and education here in the USA. it doesn't fit in a perfect little box, we placed too much importance on race and that needs to change, we are all equal..

    February 2, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rachel

      Oh don't get me started on Spain. My mother is Mexican. Dad is Spanish, French and Euromutt in that order. I didn't qualify for grants and scholarships for "Hispanic" people because my racist, white liberal HS counselor said Spanish made me "white". No lack of melanin made me "white".

      February 2, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
  20. John Verdejo

    Like my mother used to always say and as the saying goes in Puerto Rico ¿y tu abuela donde esta?

    February 2, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • yvonne corona lerma

      And your grandmother, where is she? HAHA. I am mexican-american I speak no spanich and don't understand what you mean :).

      February 2, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
  21. schmeed

    The goal of anyone who makes a statement such as "youre not _____ enough" is to demoralize you. Most of the time the person is either ignorant or just plain mean.

    February 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Alexander

    Apparently "Hamsta" can't type with proper grammar the first time. According to his arguement, that make him Latino.

    February 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Julito Varela

    Wow, thanks!

    February 1, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  24. hamsta

    simple question:can you do something right the first time?if so then you arent latino enough and thats a good thing.

    February 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |