Years ago, I had the rare opportunity to screen my film being eñye and keynote an event in my own backyard of Denver, Colorado. #gonuggets (We just won the playoffs!)
The sheer joy of driving 10 minutes to get to an event instead of saying goodbye to my family before heading the the ✈️ airport, plopping myself into a plane seat and traveling multiple time zones, was a welcomed change.
However, this particular event shook me to my core.
A woman raised her hand during the Q&A and did something that’s common for at least half of the people who watch the film…
She shared a secret.
When I started touring with the film about seven years ago I spent a lot of time trying to understand why audience members felt so comfortable sharing their personal stories with me because I felt like I hadn’t done anything to earn their confidence. Later, I came to understand that something magical happens when you choose to be authentic and vulnerable (in the right context) – it immediately creates a situation of belonging.
She went on to share about a jersey she’d owned that “looked like it was made from the Mexican flag” and that wearing it gave her a great sense of cultural pride and sense of connection to her ancestral roots. 🇲🇽
She even remarked how people on the street would stop her to admire the jersey close-up, and to compliment her on how “cool” it was.
One time, while walking in downtown Denver, a man she did not know came up to her and asked her about her jersey.
“Nice jersey” “Are you Mexican?” he asked.
Chin up and smiling proudly she responded
“Were you born in Mexico?” he asked next.
Her shoulders began to visibly slump and she began to cry as she bravely shared the impact of that moment with me and about 500 attendees listening intently, like they could relate 100%.
You could hear a pin drop.
His final question to her
“Can you even speak Spanish?”
He then delivered the soul-crushing blow.
“Then you’re not a real Mexican and you should stop pretending to be one.”
It was heartbreaking 💔 to witness the shame wash over her as she recounted this life-changing experience with all of us and for all of us. Something that had symbolized so much pride and served as a symbol of her belonging, was now the source of so much (very relatable) pain.
This single moment in time, caught her off-guard so thoroughly that it yanked her by the feet into the deep, dark, murky waters of something called “belonging uncertainty” where she shared she didn’t feel “Mexican-enough.”
Listen, this is, quite literally the most relatable story I’ve ever heard about how easy it is for someone, even a complete stranger, can mess with our sense of belonging.
And for those (of course not you) who think she needs to stop being so sensitive…
PSA: Humans are wired to care what others think – in fact, our survival depends on it so let’s all just stop with the snowflake thing.
It’s this exact lack of awareness that distances us from the impact (good or bad) we have on our community, our family and our friends. And, it illustrates how important it is to focus on lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down… especially on stuff related to such an important subject as our identity.
After my part of the event was over, they served lunch to all the attendees and I suddenly realized it was on opposite sides of the salad buffet from our “jersey girl.”
I locked eyes with her and quickly asked the question I’d wished I would have asked from the stage.
“Do you still have the jersey?
She replied “Yes, I do but it’s in a drawer in the back of my closet. I put it there that same day.”
Then I shared with her how I get emails from people telling me to “Go back to your own country.” (I guess NY can feel like it’s own country!), my feeble attempt at reminding her that there’s always some clown trying to mess with us and that she should take it out and wear it again.
“Who cares what that guy said, or any other person like him! Take it out mujer and wear it proudly please!”
I urged her like my life depended on it.
Here’s the thing: We all walk around with at least a smidge of insecurity about some part of our identity which means we are exposed to being hurt. And 100% of the time, treating someone the way that guy on the street treated our “jersey girl”, does nothing but shame a fellow human while they are living their best life but in one fell swoop, he had the power to flush her cultural pride down the toilet 😭 and that’s simply not ok with me.
We’re all part of a community.
Whether it’s our neighborhood association, the LGBTQ community, the “Active Outdoorsy and Single” community, or any given workplace ERG.
We crave connection and if we’re lucky enough, we find it with each other.
I heard something a long time ago that’s stuck with me for years…
“Hurt people, hurt people.”
Our goal as humans living our one beautiful life, should be to be a part of communities where folks can wear whatever jersey they want.
A place where we respect our differences even if it’s something we don’t yet understand – like in this case a Latina who doesn’t speak Spanish and who is proudly part of the diaspora vs born in the “homeland.”
And finally, the way organizations evolve to becoming places where people feel like they can “bring their full self” is ironically not because of the invitation to do so, but instead, because very deliberately that space has become one that is interested and open and excited even to:
- receive someones full self
- celebrate their full self and to
- recognize and value each persons intrinsic worth
And that my beautiful and beloved friend is how we create communities of belonging.
Belonging is a conversation worth having now.