As I reflect on my father this Fathers’ Day, I’m reminded of how I used to teach writing for freshmen at a community college. One of my regular reader-response assignments included an essay by San Francisco journalist Rose del Castillo Guilbault about how the word “macho” carries different interpretations depending on culture. She argues that to Americans, “macho” is a negative word, denoting a hot temper, a womanizing attitude, and some propensity for violence. To Hispanics, however, it’s considered a compliment, indicative of a hard-working, stoic man. Her prime example is her father, an agricultural worker and quiet family man.
Del Castillo Guilbault was born in 1952, one year before my own father was born in Colombia. Despite the generational divide between me and this well-regarded journalist, we both grew up with very similar views of our patriarchal role models. As I work through my own understanding of masculinity and my existence as a man of color in the US, my father has proved as much an example of what not to do as otherwise.
I always find it rather funny that kids of color, regardless of our parents’ backgrounds, often communicate many common experiences in our upbringings. The lessons we learn as people of color seem unique to the experience of having a father of color. Here are a few of them.
1) Language can make all the difference.
One of my greatest childhood regrets was not putting more emphasis on practicing my Spanish. I was always capable of understanding the language — between my parents, their music, and their television programs, it hung like humidity inside our home — but my lack of confidence and fear of being ostracized for not being “American” enough outside the house resulted in a thick accent and degrees of bafflement when reading it in adulthood.
My parents have always been selective about which stories of their early years in the US they shared, but my father was explicit about his English-learning experience. While my mother had some formal instruction prior to immigrating, my father largely learned on his own. He worked nights and would often sleep on the couch during the day, soap operas playing on the TV. He said they were perfect for absorbing English because the actors spoke so slowly and articulated so cleanly.
That’s a great story. Less great is that because he is self-taught, his accent looms larger than my mother’s. He more often searches for words, or asks for the meanings of idioms. He is fluent, but still occasionally asks when I’m visiting if I’d be willing to make a customer service call he’s been putting off or write an email for him, the same way I have since I was eight.
The unspoken dependent clause following these requests is “because it’s easier for you.”
Because I have no accent. Because I can teach a classroom of bored 18-year-olds how to recognize a dependent clause. Because I don’t get requests for clarifications. Because language is not a barrier for me the way my name and my skin might otherwise be.
2) Money isn’t everything, but security is important.
I mentioned earlier that my parents are particular about sharing details of their early lives in the US. Out of respect for them, I will do much of the same here. Something I do feel comfortable mentioning is their somewhat prototypical movement through the so-called “American Dream.”
I have qualms with the concept, but I’ll admit, they broadly fit the narrative: both arrived without much besides some savings, some familial and friendly connections, and some youthful hopes. They survived New York and New Jersey through the Carter and Reagan administrations.
My parents met, dated, and married. They got green cards. They got kids. They passed their citizenship tests and bought a house. They went from working to middle class, put us through college, and now they’re in their sixties, looking retirement in the eye.
A lot gets said about the laziness of millennials and how coddled we are after being told for years to “follow our dreams.” Funnily enough, my father was pretty neutral on my dreams. If I could do something with them, great, but what really mattered was security.
For many first-generation people of color, our parents strive to remind us that they struggled so we wouldn’t have to. When I showed a greater knack for the arts than anything “practical,” my father’s lessons were not to push forward and chase my passion, nor to toss it aside and continue the family’s economic rise. He simply insisted that I should do my best with the privileges he and my mother created to ensure that I would have quality shelter, food, comfort, education, and the necessities that they sometimes had to get by without. The money mattered, but it wasn’t everything.
3) Masculine pride is complicated.
For most of my life, I didn’t have the vocabulary to dissect the complexities of gender norms in Hispanic culture. What I did understand is that my father did not admit when he was wrong. If I tried to tell him he was wrong, I was met with blank stares or changes of subject. If I pointed out that he never admitted he was wrong, I would be told that wasn’t true with no further discussion.
As I grew up, I mimicked this toxic behavior. Wrongness was terrible, and admitting wrongness was worse. It’s a paradigm that I still struggle to move past in my relationships.
My pride is woven into my masculine identity, and it is not easy to parcel out. It has been through watching my father through the years that I have seen how deeply this problem can ensnare a person. That witnessing is what drives me to therapy and introspective analysis to combat it.
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4) Humility is essential.
The other side of recognizing my father’s pride is acknowledging the value of well-placed humility. Some of this was experiential: I had a lot of arguments that ended with being humbled, sometimes because he had a better point and sometimes because he found the right tactic to shut me up.
More importantly, my father taught me humility as a safety precaution. We lived in the South for most of my upbringing. Brown skin and a loud mouth in the wrong neighborhood can be lethal.
My father once spoke to me about his old propensity for road rage, how getting cut off or harassed in a car used to result in his screaming slurs and curses, middle finger out. At some point, following a few stories from friends of friends who met awful fates for similar behavior, he let it go.
He said you never knew who had a gun. That you never knew who might see an angry Latino man and decide that their life was in danger. And that you knew exactly what those folks could get away with.
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5) Value your body for what it does, because too much of the world will judge it on how it looks.
My father has made his living with manual labor for the entire course of my life and most of his. I have never known him without rough calluses and thick arms built from nightly exertions. I’ve trained with weights since my late teens, but I still doubt I can match him for grip or sheer pulling strength.
Despite recent struggles with mobility and health, his physical capabilities are still fairly close to what they were two or three decades earlier, and he has always taken pride in that. When I took a summer job setting up event bleachers last summer, we bonded over the pride that comes with constructing a solid object with our hands.
I have personally incorporated this idea in opposition to the expectations of bodies of color. We are too often placed in scenarios in which the differences of our bodies against the stark whiteness of the spaces we inhabit are expected to be sources of insecurity and shame.
For my father, his body is a conduit for accomplishment, and for me, this worldview gives me a powerful psychological shield against colorism. This lesson is obviously not universal — it can actually be quite exclusionary to the differently-abled. Worth should of course never be exclusively defined by physical capability. Nevertheless, it can be a useful tool for some, and it has been for me.
6) Your politics are indicative of your soul.
I registered to vote when I was 17, just before the 2008 primaries. Even before that, I had some strong opinions, very obviously influenced by my father.
One of his more unequivocal lessons has been the explicit statement: “You HAVE to vote. And know what you’re voting for.”
This isn’t mysterious. He and my mother lived in this country for years without a vote. They had to take a citizenship test (which 33% of native-born citizens would fail) in order to gain that right. Meanwhile, it was handed to me. I wasn’t allowed to waste it.
Even more importantly, I had more access to information than they ever did. My opinions have power. My politics and what I value through those politics directly parallel my morality.
This wasn’t cemented for me until I disagreed with my father about a local vote over property taxes. My father supported the cut, thinking about the slow recovery from the recession. I thought more about education, one of the issues dearest to my heart, and what the cut would do to the already struggling school district.
I continued to understand that my reasons for supporting one issue or candidate reflects what I want to see in the world around me.
This Fathers’ Day, let’s celebrate our fathers of color for all their wisdom and perseverance, flawed and complicated as they (and all of us) are. Let’s thank them for their sacrifices and carry their stories with us as we strive for a better future where people of all genders, racial backgrounds, and classes can embody their authentic, whole selves.
[Feature Image: Photograph of a person carrying a baby on their back. The older person has brown skin, dark brown hair, and is wearing a purple shirt. The baby has brown skin, short dark hair, and is wearing a white shirt. They are outside on an urban street. Source: Pixabay]