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El Acento de mi Mamá

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Her name meaning “miracles”, mi mamá is 5’8” with curly, brown pelo malo and a warm smile and laugh. Her skin is freckled by the sun, an imprint of her youth in Puerto Rico. And oh, how I love how she speaks — in English and Spanish. Beyond what meets the eye and ear is a brilliant woman — the first in her family to leave the island, get a Ph.D., and surpass socioeconomic barriers limiting those before her. Milagros don’t happen without hard work, and to that, she is the epitome of her name. To me, she is incredible and beautiful. But to many, it is hard to look past what meets the eye and ear, and they hastily make assumptions about her.

Growing up, I never thought mamá sounded different from my friends’ parents. But although I felt she spoke like everyone else, everyone else thought she spoke like “Puerto Rico.” I ceased to hear her voice from her mouth and began to hear it only through the warped tongue of others. Each instance of people mocking her accent and gleefully using it to enhance their punchlines distorted my perception of what it meant to be Puerto Rican. I became increasingly aware of others’ impatient facial expressions at the start of her sentences and realized that her experience as a Puerto Rican in America was far more different than I’d imagined.

When mamá came to Iowa for graduate school, she spent most of her time with international students. They bonded over how professors spoke obnoxiously slow to them, how classmates mocked their accents, or how they missed home (especially during the freezing Iowa winters). The frequent microaggressions from American students and professors led her to find comfort with those who shared her identity as an outsider — but she did not find this comfort in other Hispanic students.

Partly in an attempt to escape the Puerto Rican stereotype and partly due to prejudice within the community, mamá sought non-Hispanic companions. The Latin American diaspora is wonderfully diverse: Each Spanish-speaking province and nation has a unique history and substantial differences in their Spanish. However, this uniqueness is unfortunately not always celebrated in the Hispanic community; Western influence and colonization have sowed divisions and created a hierarchy of Latine ethnicities. Within this hierarchy, there exists the stereotype that Puerto Ricans don’t speak the “right” type of Spanish. The quick and informal nature of the Puerto Rican dialect has birthed the untrue assumption that Puerto Ricans are less intelligent by nature. With every other Hispanic nation claiming to have the “better Spanish” while generally looking down upon Boricuas, a world absent of this divide feels impossible.

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Even within the Caribbean, western beauty standards stemming from colonization influence how Latine individuals are judged and judge each other. Pelo malo is linked with being unkempt, lower-class, and dirty, while pelo lacio is smooth, desirable, beautiful, and professional. This same narrative exists in America, making up yet another layer in our intricate web of biases.

Because accents have become the flag bearers of stereotypes, Puerto Ricans often struggle between quiet assimilation and being proud of our heritage. Puerto Rican history, traditions, and even our importance in the American political eye have diminished due to the stereotype staining our reputation.

There is also a double standard in America between Western and non-Western accents. People are drawn to narrators like David Attenborough and relatedly find British people more intelligent, sophisticated, and attractive simply because of their type of accent. This is not a privilege Puerto Ricans, Hispanics, and other non-Western people have. British people are a blend of familiarity and foreignness, tolerably exotic. Since the cultural similarities between Americans and Brits are greater, Americans feel comfortable with their othering qualities. But due to xenophobia ingrained in American society, anything too different is scary. So, we assign assumptions to the people we don’t understand, thus birthing stereotypes that perpetuate cultural divides.

Accents tell a story that we will never begin to understand unless we listen. Our general impatience for those who speak differently burns the bridge between their unique perspectives and our own. And let’s not forget that Hispanic accents typically mean that person knows at least two languages — more than the average American.

But not all is bad for non-native English speakers. Mamá described a silver lining to being Puerto Rican in America: her accent provides comfort. She is known for translating for Hispanic families in my town’s public schools. Sometimes at the supermarket, strangers ask her in Spanish questions they didn’t feel comfortable asking the employees. She even expressed how it was only after she came to America that she learned to love her pelo malo after years of straightening it, wearing it naturally to emphasize her identity to others. The connections Mamá’s identity allows her to make are beautiful, and so is being Boricua. It’s about time America hears and sees this beauty too.

Maia Patel Masini ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Kirkland House.

This piece is part of a focus on Hispanic authors and experiences for Hispanic Heritage Month.

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