If you were a young girl who grew up in a Latin household, you most likely heard your mom or abuelita constantly remind you that “Calladita te ves mas bonita, mijita” (when you are quiet you look prettier, sweetheart). This was certainly not an expression that your brothers or boy cousins grew up with, so from birth, we Latinas were already being conditioned to think and behave a certain way.
November 2 is “Equal Pay Day for Latinas,” which means that Latinas need to work an extra 10 months a year in order to catch up and make the same money as white men, or seven months more than white women, and four additional months then African American women. Latinas are the most underpaid of any female demographic in the U.S., and this is not because we have jobs that pay less. Even in high leadership positions, Latinas get paid approximately half of what white men, who hold the same positions and degrees, get paid. Whether a doctor or a housekeeper, if you are a Latina in this country, you can expect to make on average $1.5 million less than any white man over the course of your professional career.
So what’s the deal? Does our country really discriminate more against Latinas than anyone else, or should our moms and abuelas share some of the blame for handicapping our self-confidence by instilling old-fashioned ideals as part of our cultural upbringing? Are they responsible for programming us as soon as we can talk, to think that speaking up for what we deserve is not necessarily attractive or considered “good mannered”?
I was born with a very “passionate” and outspoken personality―one that constantly got me in trouble at school. I can remember clearly hearing the phrase “calladita te ves mas bonita,” both from my sweet Mexican abuelita and my highly-educated, psychologist mother. Yup, even she believed that keeping my head down and not speaking up, even if I was right, was the proper thing to do. She raised me to always be grateful for what I had, and encouraged me not to speak up and ask for more, even when I deserved it.
For years, I tried to be the obedient girl my family wanted me to be, until one day I hit rock bottom, when I was verbally bullied on my school bus in middle school for my “chilanguita” (Mexico City) accent. And from that moment on, I decided to be calladita no more.
My first hard salary negotiation happened a few years later, when I was 15 years old. I worked at a local radio station, co-hosting a show with my friend Marco Antonio Regil (yes, the now famous game show TV host!). He thought we should both be getting paid more and encouraged me to negotiate along with him and if we did not get what we deserved, we would both quit our jobs.
I was so grateful for the opportunity to be working at the radio station, even though I knew I should be getting paid more, so the thought of upsetting my boss by asking for more money made me sick to my stomach. But I followed my friend’s lead and we took the owner of the radio station to brunch to renegotiate our deals over huevos rancheros.
He did most of the talking, and I was in awe of his manly self-confidence. He calmly stated the value we brought to the station, as there was no one in the market that understood “youth” the way that we did. He then talked about all the great work we had been doing and cited our high ratings as a tangible example, before finally pointing out how we had been working at multiple live events on the weekends without receiving any extra pay.
Sure enough, we got our double raise and from that day on I took that important lesson in having self-confidence to heart.
Flash forward to a couple years back, when I was invited to the White House to speak to a group of female entrepreneurs that the former First Lady, Michelle Obama, was hosting. I was asked to share how my partners and I were able to raise $40 million and build mitú into the largest digital media brand for Latinos, especially since I had never raised money before or built a digital media brand in my entire career. My answer consisted of three words: White. Man. Swagger.
What I’ve learned over the years is that we can’t be victims of our circumstances and do nothing about it. In fact, I often find myself consciously trying to re-boot the “overly-eager-to-please” Latina chip in me. For example, in every big meeting I take, I pump myself up and make myself feel extra confident and empowered when I see that no one else in the room looks like me. I have confidence in the fact that no one else there has my insights or expertise, and that this knowledge is invaluable, both as a woman and a Latina, especially when Latinos are the ones driving economic growth and are the gateway to American youth in our country.
The faster that we can un-program our brains to think that in order to be good or liked we need to be quiet and obedient, the faster we will be able to empower the next generation of Latina leaders to be strong, confident and expect no less than equality.