THE BLOG
09/24/2015 04:42 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2016

Latinos Are More Than "The Jobs Americans Don't Want To Do"

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"Mexican."

The word takes on different meanings depending on who you ask.

It is often used as a pejorative: an umbrella term applied to all Latinos or Latino immigrants living in the United States.

For Mexican-Americans, the word can be complex. Some families prefer to simply call themselves "American" while others embrace the word "Mexican." "Chicano," a derivative of the word, is used to describe people of Mexican descent born in the United States.

But for me, the word feels more like a caste.

Labor has always been inextricable from my understanding of Mexican identity. Even at an early age, as a mixed kid who was just becoming aware of the world, I remember wishing I could have been born as something different or as completely white because I disliked the association of "Mexican" with, for example, Home Depot.

I also quickly got tired of "mow my lawn."

All these sentiments were expressed as jokes, but they spoke to a widely accepted reality: Mexicans are here to do the dirty jobs.

They are the construction workers and the nannies, the gardeners and the janitors, the fruit pickers. They don't mind doing these jobs, and they will do them on the cheap because they are just grateful to be here in America.

It's a narrative that must be challenged.

Not because we are ashamed of the Latinos whose realities reflect this, Latinos who find themselves in situations where they are exploited or must take low-paying jobs to survive, but because this narrative is one of dehumanization that affects every Latino living in the United States regardless of citizenship status.

For immigrants, the popular notion that Latinos are coming to the United States seeking better economic conditions or, more callously, "to steal American jobs," contributes to the erasure of refugee status to Latinos fleeing violence or political unrest.

It's a notion born of American exceptionalism and ignorant of the fact that, in some Latin American nations, the United States directly contributed to the destabilization of regimes. Honduras, where many must flee violence, is a prominent example. No wonder the United Nations has called on the U.S. to recognize these immigrants and their children as refugees.

Also consider that private prisons continue to make money from detaining immigrants with immigrant detention quotas. Only when you apply the term "refugee" to those detained does this practice come into focus as truly unconscionable. That's the power of the word - it humanizes.

For Latinos with citizenship in the United States, the concept of "Mexican" or "Latino" as an identity occupying the bottom rung of an American caste system has real ramifications for how much money we earn and what jobs we are hired to do. Studies show we are paid less in both skilled and unskilled jobs.

The narrative is so entrenched in American culture that both liberals and conservatives make use of it.

A prominent example would be Kelly Osbourne defending Latinos against Donald Trump on The View by saying if Latinos all left the country, Trump would have no one to clean his toilet.

Another example would be Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich saying he supports Latinos by tipping the maid at the hotel.

This all serves to treat an incredibly diverse Latino community as monolithic. At best, it reduces human beings, many of whom are refugees, down to their worth as laborers and at worst makes them out to be parasites.

And we are not parasites.

There are many words we Latinos use to describe ourselves. American culture, however, seems to have decided on the word "Mexican" to describe most of us.

It's a word that takes on different meanings depending on who you ask.

To me, it describes a reality in America that affects Latinos of all stripes.