The ability to attract and keep Hispanic attorneys will depend on understanding a Hispanic attorney on his or her own terms. Companies and firms that paint Hispanics with a broad brush may be at risk of running them off.
In my life, others have conjectured my background to be Italian, Greek, Romanian, Polish, Jewish, Mexican, Spanish, and Cuban. While growing up in Chicago, my fair skin and lack of an accent allowed me to slip in and out of ethnic enclaves as if I was one of their own. I could be in the majority if I chose. Or I could be in the minority. In the process of being everyone, though, I was becoming no one. Now that I am older, I appreciate my background much more—where I came from and what it means to be “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and “Cuban American”—because I am all those things. And I know there are others like me, whose parents were born in Cuba and who immigrated to the United States, who identify themselves only with some of these classifications, and others who identify with none of them.
This issue of identity bleeds into the practice of law. “Hispanics,” whether they are Peruvian, Mexican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, or Venezuelan, contend with how they view themselves and how others view them. What does it mean to be “Hispanic?” It means sharing similar experiences, culture, and values, and yet being different, depending on your country of origin. It means speaking Spanish for some and not for others. For some, it means being called “Hispanic,” for others “Latino,” perhaps including the country of origin in the description (“Mexican American”) or simply ignoring such classifications altogether. So how do we define a group that eludes definition, many of whom can easily slip into the majority undetected?
When companies and law firms attempt to increase the number of “Hispanics” in their ranks, they must realize that there is no such thing as a homogeneous group with that label. Corporate America and law firms have to deal with each “Hispanic” on his or her own terms, because there are many different faces to being Hispanic, as shown by the following attorneys with their diverse backgrounds.
Christina Guerola Sarchio, a partner at Howery, LLP, considers herself Hispanic. Her parents emigrated from Spain to the United States, where she was born. For financial reasons, her parents sent her to Spain to live with her grandmother. She returned home to start kindergarten, not knowing any English. “My parents sought out the best school district, and I was only one of two Hispanics in the elementary school. I had a lot of Hispanic friends outside of school. We all spoke Spanish. I had two lives. Going through school, I was almost embarrassed at times to identify myself as Hispanic, because I did not want any special treatment. As I got older, I realized being Hispanic was important, largely because I could speak two languages.”
When she became a lawyer, she joined Hispanic bar associations to meet others like her. “Hispanics I have met in the legal profession have been very collegial. There are differences among us, but there are a lot of similarities. We share common threads and common themes. We may not all eat the same foods or speak Spanish the same way, but we have very similar family backgrounds and share the same values. Many Hispanic attorneys are first-generation Americans trying to support themselves and their extended families.” These common threads have allowed Hispanics, irrespective of their country of origin, to form social and business networks to promote all Hispanics in the legal profession.
John Peter Suarez, senior vice president and general counsel of the International Division of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., echoes Sarchio’s view. “I see commonalities and affinities among various Latino groups based on common background. Our family, as do most Hispanic families, emphasized family and education.” His mother was from Nicaragua and his father was from Spain, and Spanish was spoken in the home. “When growing up, I knew we were Hispanic—we spoke Spanish, we had our foods—yet our father stressed assimilation. Cultural heritage is important to pass from one generation to the next, yet each generation will define its own heritage.” Being of a mixed heritage, he does not shy away from the umbrella term “Hispanic.” “I define myself as Hispanic. I have never perceived my ethnicity as an issue.”
Gonzalo Martinez, an associate at Carroll, Burdick & McDonough LLP, agrees that falling under the “Hispanic” umbrella has its advantages. “I am Mexican American, but it does not bother me when I am seen as part of a larger ‘Hispanic’ block, even if it glosses over being Mexican American. It often helps to be seen as part of a larger group. It may be because there are so few of us in the legal profession that sometimes we need to overlook our differences and focus on what we have in common.” Peter Cruz, who works with Martinez, agrees that there is strength in numbers. “It is better to have a larger voice heard than a fragmented one.” Ethnic identity for Cruz, though, remains important. “I am Puerto Rican, born in San Juan, and I’m proud of that. Latinos are not a homogeneous bloc. My ethnic group is a vibrant part of the Hispanic collective umbrella.”
“There are advantages to being lumped together,” notes Marlene Quintana, partner at Gray Robinson and president of the Cuban American Bar Association. “I think we learn from each other. All of us, as Hispanics, have different experiences and we all have something to contribute. Through our joint actions, we can raise our collective profile.” However, she does not usually refer to herself as “Hispanic.” “I generally identify myself as Cuban. Not Cuban American. At my core, it is how I feel and that is where my values are. Others say, ‘But your parents are Cuban, not you.’ And I say, ‘No, I am Cuban.’ When I use a broader category, I use Hispanic.”
So with Hispanics perceiving themselves differently, how do they perceive one another within the legal profession? Mauricio Velasquez, president & chief executive officer of The Diversity Training Group, admits that the law firms with which he consults do not have many Hispanics—generally less than one percent. Because of this, these Hispanics reach out to other Hispanics regardless of national origin. “With so few Hispanics, the Hispanics at the firms reach out to each other. They bond because there is no one else.” He finds that firms treat Hispanics as a homogeneous group. “Firms paint with a broad brush. They consider Latinos to be one group. They do not distinguish between one group and the next.” Sometimes firms have a hard time even identifying the Hispanic attorneys at their firms. “They cannot always tell if you are Latino. What if a woman is a Latina who takes her husband’s name? What happens with kids of Latino and Anglo parents? All sorts of folks can fall through the cracks when you are accounting for Hispanics.”
Defining Hispanics, whether in larger blocks or smaller ones, not only poses challenges not only to companies and law firms; it also poses challenges to Hispanics themselves. Peter M. Reyes Jr., a senior intellectual property attorney at Cargill, Inc. notes, “I used to have an issue as to my own identity. There are many facets of myself. Mexican. Mexican American. American. Hispanic. Latino.” As a lighter-skinned Latino, he sometimes is confused with being an Anglo. “It is interesting to be in a conversation when others talk about affirmative action or reverse discrimination and do not realize I am Hispanic.”
Reyes’s ability to blend into the majority unnoticed is a trait many Hispanics share. José Sariego, senior vice president and general counsel at HBO Latin America Group, notes that, “while my name gives me away, my appearance does not. I do not have an accent. In fact, many think I have a Midwestern accent. I can get away with being anonymous.” Sariego does not define himself as Hispanic or Cuban American, but rather as an American born in Cuba. “When I go to Calle Ocho, or to Versailles, or elsewhere where it is my culture, I am a Cuban exile. But professionally, I do not identify myself as Hispanic.” He has learned to navigate both worlds. “I have clients that are Hispanic, and I work for a company where there are Hispanics. I speak to them in Spanish. When I go to New York and deal with Wall Street bankers, I speak to them in English. I can navigate these two cultures quite well.”
For those who do not have a Latin surname, blending into the majority is even easier. Linda Maria Wayner, who works for the Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps, and Protocol, a division of the Office of the Mayor of New York, recognizes “there is an advantage to being a chameleon.” However, she is proud of her heritage. “I am 75 percent Colombian and 25 percent Czech. I tend to identify myself with the term Hispanic, and use the term interchangeably with Latino. In the legal profession, it is helpful to identify yourself as Hispanic. There is strength in numbers, and by encouraging self-identification we will eventually create a critical mass in our profession.” Because of her features and name, many do not identify her as Hispanic. “It happens all the time that I am identified as another nationality. I have a quick discussion and correct the misconception. I am careful to politely make the correction so there is no confusion about identity. I am not insulted when people mistake my ethnicity for another, but I do want to clarify.”
Mayda Prego, senior counsel at Chevron Corporation, whose mother is Puerto Rican and whose father is Cuban, notes that others identify her according to their own backgrounds. “How others identify me from an ethnic, cultural, or demographic point of view depends on the person making the assessment. What is interesting is that because my name is not typically identifiable as Hispanic and my look could be anything Mediterranean; folks meet me and think I could be Greek, Italian, but at first glance never Hispanic.” How others define her can reveal underlying prejudices. “One female Anglo colleague said to me once, ‘I always forget you are Hispanic, because you are like “Wendy Wasp.” ’ I found that to be an interesting comment. I was curious as to how this person defined ‘Hispanic,’ because somehow I did not project myself according to whatever stereotype she had about Hispanics.”
Other Hispanics, because of the color of their skin, do not have the ability to blend into the majority, and are even ostracized by some lighter-skin Hispanics. Miguel A. Pozo, partner at Lowenstein Sandler, who is of Dominican descent, is aware of such prejudices in the Hispanic community, but does not feel they are widespread and has never experienced them personally. “I have heard of discrimination by lighter-skin Hispanics against darker-skin Hispanics, but I do not believe it is widespread and have never been the subject of it in the legal community.” He believes that organizations such as the Hispanic National Bar Association (on which he serves as a member of the Board of Governors) continue to serve as bridges between and among Hispanics of all backgrounds and colors.
Rolando Bascumbe, associate regional counsel with the Environmental Protection Agency, Region 4, notes that some Hispanics can blend in. He too is aware of the prejudices in the Latino community, but says they are not prevalent, and that what prejudice exists is diminishing. “Within the Latino community, there is a small group who distinguish themselves by the color of their skin. An Afro/Latino dichotomy exists out there. For the most part, however, that is diminishing as our community becomes more sophisticated.” Just like Pozo, in Bascumbe’s experience, Hispanics increasingly are focusing on common ground and overlooking any perceived differences.
Whether in larger blocks or smaller ones, defining Hispanics poses challenges not only to companies and law firms; it also poses challenges to Hispanics themselves.
Something that draws Hispanics together across different backgrounds is their common language. Joseph J. Ortego, a partner at Nixon Peabody and a Hispanic with a mixed background, agrees. “The Spanish language binds Hispanics together. There is a relief with being with your own and speaking your own language. If someone from Nicaragua calls me, he will recognize my name, speak Spanish, and feel comfortable. My children read Spanish books. They are bilingual. I use language as a basis for unity.” Having things in common unifies Hispanics to counter misconceptions and prejudices. “There is a stereotype of me because I am Hispanic. People will tell me that I was not what they were expecting, that I ‘should be darker.’
“I remember going to my daughter’s high school class. The teacher says it is very important to learn Spanish. Next time, the students should speak with their gardeners or the bus driver, because they can work on their Spanish and the laborers will appreciate being spoken to in their language. It was outrageous—this stereotype that all Hispanics are gardeners.”
The Spanish language not only unifies Hispanics, but also serves as a commodity. Liz Lopez, associate at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, was born and raised in Peru, and understands the importance of Spanish in the global economy. “I have the benefit of being perfectly fluent and to utilize this skill to strengthen my relationship with bilingual clients. Many Latinos do not speak Spanish, but there is the expectation that if you are Latino, you should speak it.” However, stereotypes persist about Spanish speakers. “Some assume we have not mastered English, either in our writing or in our oral advocacy,” notes Sarchio of Howrey. “I cannot ignore stereotypes that we are not qualified because English is not our first language.”
These stereotypes and prejudices have compelled some Hispanic attorneys to play off their “everyman” look to protect their clients’ interests. Francisco Angones, the immediate past president of the Florida Bar, is often mistaken for Irish, northern Italian, or Greek. Trying cases in Florida during the 1970s and 1980s, he remembers not calling attention to his Cuban heritage before juries. “When I was representing clients in front of juries, I made sure they did not identify me as Hispanic. There was a perception, a perceived difference that we were not the same and because we were not the same, we were inferior. I certainly did not want my client to suffer prejudices of those in the jury who might think I was Hispanic.”
He remembers a case he tried in Key West in the late 1970s. “After the trial was over, the only question the jurors had was they wanted to know whether my name was Greek or Italian. My nationality mattered to them.” Today, being Cuban American is an advantage in Miami. “Today, in Miami-Dade County, I say, ‘My name is Francisco Angones, but folks call me Frank.’ Somewhere else in state, I might just say, ‘my name is Frank.’ ”
But more and more, society, particularly the business community, has come to appreciate the importance of diversity to the bottom line. Andrea Caro, partner at Zimmerman, Kiser & Sutcliffe and president of the Hispanic Bar Association of Central Florida, notes that her Hispanic roots advance her clients’ interests. “In representing companies in personal injury matters, I can relate to Hispanic plaintiffs, speak to them in Spanish and help my client understand them and the Hispanic jurors that sit on their juries.” She can help clients understand cultural aspects of Hispanic juries and parties that they cannot begin to appreciate because they have no point of reference. For Caro, her identity as a Hispanic is sough out by her clients.
As these diverse views illustrate, companies and law firms should understand that there is no one definition or classification of “Hispanic.” There are many faces to being Hispanic, and the ability to attract and keep Hispanic attorneys will depend on the willingness and effort to understand a Hispanic attorney on his or her own terms. Companies and firms that paint Hispanics with a broad brush may be at risk of running them off. DB
Francisco Ramos Jr., Esq., is a freelance writer and partner at the Miami-based offices of Clarke Silvergate Campbell.
From the September/October 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®