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Owning Your Identity

In honor of International Women’s Day, some of our staff have shared their stories about how they’re breaking gender bias to create an equal world.

Close to the heart

Lupe Nache Vital never misses a chance to honor her Mexican roots. With a vivid portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe to watch over her and a jar of rebanaditas on her desk, even her office is infused with the heartbeat of la madre patria, or the motherland.

Her father immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s to follow employment opportunities wherever they arose. He would frequently travel between the U.S. and Mexico to see his family, but it would take nearly three decades for her mother to begin the immigration process. After her mother arrived in the Quad Cities in February of 1999, Lupe was born in Rock Island just three months later. 

Lupe travels to Mexico as often as she can. With her four-year degree in social work recently completed at St. Ambrose, she plans to visit again later this year.

The weight of an accent

For her, Mexico is different from the U.S., but she admits a certain amount of privilege when it comes to traveling. As someone who “looks and sounds Mexican” but doesn’t speak with an accent, she hasn’t experienced a lot of candid discrimination based on the color of her skin. 

“When I go to Mexico, I don’t have that fear that people have while being in a foreign country. Mexico has several travel restrictions for violence, and I’ve never experienced it . . . but here I’ve never been discriminated against like other minorities have,” Lupe says.

Her parents have shared stories of their struggles in the workplace as people who “speak with accents.” And in the past, she’s seen employers turn down qualified individuals in favor of less-qualified individuals due to assumptions about immigrants. Sometimes bias is even disguised as a compliment.

“I’ve had jobs where I was hired for being Mexican, because they said Mexicans are good workers,” she recalls. 

A subtle kind of bias

Statements like these, she adds, demean personal work ethic and make you question your loyalty to an employer. Yet the form of bias that Lupe is more personally familiar with is one that’s easily hidden in day to day conversations. Much of it takes place around her full name, Maria Guadalupe Nache Vital. 

Sometimes it’s repeated mispronunciation, only to be asked “Why do you have so many names?” Other times, it’s a nickname given in place of effort. 

The tell, she says, is intent and willingness to learn. It’s easy for others to mistake microaggressions for innocent questions. 

“Microaggressions leave you thinking. It sits with you all day. You go to sleep and you’re just like, ‘that wasn’t right.’ Some people say it in a tone that isn’t rude, but it’s the idea that they don’t see anything wrong with what they said, like giving nicknames to people instead of the small effort it takes to remember. It’s so disrespectful to the significance behind their name,” she says. 

It’s even more discouraging when it happens in the workplace. Seeing others creating their own workplace standard is troubling when you know you can’t do the same. 

“My parents always warned me that I’d have to work twice as hard,” she continues. 

And as the daughter of immigrants, Lupe has faced bias specific to women of color. On top of the general assumption they’re better at “feminine” tasks, women of color are often seen as “exotic.” She’s no stranger to uncomfortable comments about being Latina. 

Room for growth

For Lupe, finding a work environment that values discussion, diversity, and education has been a much-needed relief. 

She began an internship with World Relief Quad Cities in her senior year of college. She chose WRQC out of two options because she’s always been comfortable around immigrants. Now, Lupe is WRQC’s Bookkeeper and IFRP caseworker, and she’s learned a lot about refugee populations.

“What’s nice about WRQC is that everyone understands and people here ask questions to learn. The other day Ratko and I talked about my four names and the cultural significance of the name Guadalupe,” she says.  

On top of her social work, Spanish, and Latinx studies (“shoutout Dr. Brittany Tulis,” she adds), being in such a diverse work environment has given her a chance to reflect on her identity. 

Ni de aquí, ni de allá

Being born and raised in the U.S. means she’s faced less discrimination than some of her family members. However, it doesn’t guarantee that either culture will wholly recognize her. Part of the immigrant experience, she says, is the idea of nepantla. 

“Nepantla is the concept of in-between-ness. Looking like you’re not from here and then going to Mexico and you’re not from there either . . .  finding peace with existing in between has helped me to understand my identity as a Mexican-American woman of color,” Lupe says.

When it comes to breaking the bias she’s experienced in the past, she makes a point to never assign tasks to others based on gender, or because it falls within the scope of gender roles. She does her best to “reserve judgment.”

But above all, finding peace with herself has empowered her to make the active choice to treat bias as an opportunity for education. She encourages those with the ability to speak up to do the same. 

“It’s not confrontational, it’s not ‘making it about race,’ it’s about things that should be done correctly and respectfully,” she says.

And for anyone experiencing discrimination in the workplace, she says, nurturing your own cultural identity is the first step toward healing. 

“Just solidifying yourself in your identity . . . if you know who you are and know where you come from, it’s not hard to defend yourself,” she concludes. 

Erica Parrigin manages communications at World Relief Quad Cities. She graduated from Western Illinois University with a BA in English in 2020. She believes that stories are powerful, and that learning to empathize with other perspectives is the key to making a difference.

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