When a white school board member in Fontana, California, referred to all Latino students as “anchor babies,” school board member Leticia Garcia, 46, took action. Garcia demanded—and got—a public apology from her colleague. So, you’d think the local Latino community might be pleased with Garcia, right?
“Latinos here hate me,” says Garcia. “They’re mad I accepted her apology. They wanted me to ‘fight back’ and call her names, too. But in my mind it was much more important to be diplomatic and intelligent, and to show through my actions that we believe every person deserves civility and respect, even when we disagree.”
When Erica Rodriguez, 27, of North Philadelphia, decided to become the first in her family to go to college, she hoped relatives would be proud of her. Instead, “my own mother accused me of being stuck up,” says Rodriguez, a graduate of Temple University who now works as a human resources specialist for the U.S. Navy.
And when academic Johanna Maes, now on faculty at the University of Colorado in Boulder, left a lucrative job because of nearly constant workplace harassment, it wasn’t from a white male, as some might expect. Rather, “it was a Latina who was jealous and hated me because of my success,” says Maes.
What all of these women experienced is “crabs in a barrel,” a phenomenon quite common in Latino communities. (The term refers to the tendency of captured crabs to reach up and pull down any crab who gets it in her head to try to escape.) For Latinas, who face double barrels of ethnicity and gender, this envidia, or backlash against success, can be twice as tough.
“You can’t win,” says Garcia. “The activists think you’re not Latino enough, and the assimilated Latinos think you’re too radical. It’s like we can’t just let Latinas be individuals. You have to fit someone’s notion of what a Latina ‘should’ be or you’re useless.”
Garcia and others say contemporary envidia against Latinas in the United States stems from a general lack of education among our communities (which are among the least-educated in the nation). But the late anthropologist George Foster traces envidia’s roots even deeper, to a “limited good” psychology, prevalent among pre-modern societies in Mexico and Latin America.
My father Nelson P. Valdes, a sociology professor specializing in Latin America, says this knee-jerk desire among some Latinos to bring each other down comes from “this idea that all good things exist in finite amounts. You don’t want someone else to have something good, because in a world of zero-sum gain, another’s good means less good for you.”
“We could have so much power, in industry and politics,” says Garcia. “Just look at our numbers! But we don’t, because we spend so much energy tearing each other down. It’s very, very sad.”
“Latinas have to stop seeing one another as threats,” says Alma Morales Riojas, President and CEO of MANA. “We need to recognize that there’s room for everyone, and that whenever one of us succeeds, all of us succeed because it paves the way for the next one—even if we’re not all clones of one another. There’s no one right way to be a Latina, but there is a wrong way, and that’s by failing to support one another.”