Bert's Speech

for Hispanic Heritage Month

Peer Washington's very own Roberta "Bert" Romero got the opportunity to share her own story and what Hispanic heritage means to her for a Smartsheet event. Below is a written transcript of her speech. 

Hello everyone, thank you all for your time today; I appreciate it.

 

Today I will be sharing my story with you as a Latina woman, journalist, mother, wife, non-profit employee, and alcoholic. Yes-that is also my story and an important part, but spoiler alert- I’m in long-term recovery...

When the Smartsheet Latino group and your new diversity equity and inclusion director amelia ransom asked me to speak to you all for Hispanic heritage month, I enthusiastically said yes—and then immediately regretted it. Not because I am nervous (oh, I am) but because this is a subject that is hard for me to articulate about in the wake of black lives matter. For the first time in my life, I am really taking a look at my ethnicity, growing up in the united states as a Latina, and what is next. I also think it is critical that we share our stories so that we can all try to understand and grow together in order to make true changes.

 

I’ll start with my beginning. I was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That is a part of the country that has a large Hispanic population- it’s basically indigenous, Hispanic, and white. My parents, Carmel and Patrick Romero, were from a very small town called Aragon, New Mexico. (Albuquerque was considered the big city.) This is important because what happened to them in school there had a huge impact on my life. And I didn’t find out about it until I was a young adult. 

 

And here it is—I don’t speak Spanish. 

I have a lot of shame and guilt around this. When my parents attended elementary school - if they spoke Spanish in the classroom or the playground, the teachers would hit them. They were taught to speak English only, not their first language of Spanish. It didn’t take long for them to stop-at least in front of the teachers. The other lesson they learned—assimilate as fast as possible if you want to be successful. That meant no Spanish, no traditional customs or celebrations-do nothing that would draw attention to your browness. 

So flash forward to the early 60’s -when my older sister and I were born. They spoke only English to us. Keep in mind both my fraternal and maternal grandmothers only spoke Spanish. While they both died when I was younger, I never had a conversation with them- I didn’t know how. 

Being multicultural in the 70s in the United States was not cool or accepted – my family adapted to the norms of the times, and quite frankly, we did well. My dad worked at the University of New Mexico, my mother for the state of New Mexico. We moved to a much better school district-both my parents, but especially my mom kept education as the highest priority in our household. A better school district meant a change in demographics-now mostly white students-again, I fit in well following the norms I was taught. 

I will never forget the first time I was hanging out with my white friends after school, and they used the slur “spick”-I turned red, and they immediately assured me—oh not you—you’re not like that…

I was so confused and hurt- I couldn’t really ask anyone about it. I finally told my older sister and she said, “don’t worry about it.”

Stradling this world between white and brown got very real after that. 

I ended up going to college at the very prestigious New Mexico State University and found my career path-broadcast journalism with a minor in government affairs. Deciding to become a tv journalist was a big step for me-mostly because I had zero role models. My family always watched local and national news. I can easily list off the names of women broadcasters I admired-Diane Sawyer, Jane Pauley, Lesley Stahl—and the first Asian national anchor Connie Chung. No one that looked or sounded like me. Quite frankly, even having women on the set was revolutionary—prior to 1976, it was all white men-the first female anchor was Barbara Walters.

I graduated and started my first job at the NBC affiliate in El Paso, Texas. This is a border town with Mexico. Where you would think my being Latina would be an asset. But it was at this job I was told not to roll my ‘r’s” in my name—Roberta Romero—on air.

 

So once again-stradling that brown/white world. And honestly, I had never rolled my “r’s in my name-again-keep it (homo-jean-ee-us) homogeneous.

 

I then got my next reporting job in my hometown of Albuquerque. This was in the late 80’s -we were still using typewriters-and if you can imagine, try doing research without the internet-I kept special files with my old scripts and newspaper articles for background as my homemade google. This was also a time when on the air, we would use words like “illegal alien,” “orientals,” and all indigenous people were called “Indians”. We are thankfully far from that time, but not that far-it took strong people to help us change a culture to start using words like undocumented workers, Asian and indigenous. We are still working on that, I now use unhoused rather than homeless, for example, and I try to be aware of word choice. 

Life continued on for me--I ended up getting married and then deciding to see if I could get a job in a big tv market. I applied to king 5, the NBC affiliate in Seattle. This was a big deal. King 5 is known around the country by journalists for its high-quality work and journalistic ethics. 

I got the job—I was so excited—and then one of the first responses I got was from a white male co-worker—and he said, “oh, you must be the quota hire. “

I mention this because it’s something I’ve always dealt with in my career (and I expect a lot of people of color to experience it) the never-ending task to prove to people that I deserve my position. And when I say people, I include myself—do I deserve it should I be here. 

So instead of thinking, I earned the job at king 5- I felt “lucky” to be working there. This is how my luck played out. I was immediately assigned to the weekend shift, where I worked with the Asian anchor. We both ended up moving to the coveted Monday thru Friday shift-but, it took a while. I want to point out from 1994 to 2015; I was the only Hispanic reporter on-air at king 5. The only one. I’m happy to say that has significantly changed. I continued to question my place in the world. When I started at king- I was only 26, I was asked to attend the Hispanic chamber of commerce gala.  Many came up to me and started speaking in Spanish; once they learned I didn’t speak it, I was pretty much shunned. I was deeply hurt- and I stayed away from organized Hispanic groups for years because of it... 

Once again, straddling two worlds.

 

I eventually found my groove; I loved my job and co-workers, straddling, and I was starting my family. First with a son and then—brace yourselves—twin daughters.I was working full time, taking care of three kids, husband, home (with no family nearby), and so of course, I drank red wine at night-I deserved wine after all.

 

But then it became something more. It was every night, and then I was trying to hide it from my husband. I really wasn’t that surprised to discover I had a problem with alcohol. Because I grew up with it. My father was an alcoholic. But it wasn’t talked about, and in fact, no one outside of my immediate family even knew. The next few years were rough- fighting through the shame and guilt of being an alcoholic mom hit me hard. Plus- it was difficult to find help. I was a reporter for goodness sake- I know how to research! And finding high-quality, affordable treatment was so difficult, but I finally found a place.

And I will speak honestly to all of you- who are working in the corporate world. One of the hardest things I had to do was go to my boss and ask for 28 days off. My ego and life were deeply tied to my career. I can tell you I was stunned by my boss's reaction. He told me he understood-he his family himself who have this problem and to take the time I needed and that I will have my job when I get back. That was a powerful moment for me, and even though that news director is long retired every year on January 2—my sober birthday I send him a card to thank him for his support, and if all goes as planned this January, I will celebrate 18 years of sobriety. 

I did have a revelation during treatment-regarding my Spanish speaking skills. You see, I studied it—I took it in high school and college. And I could not pick it up. I figured out the link. There was domestic violence in my house with my alcoholic father, and when my parents would fight, they would do it in Spanish. I have blocked it- I have a lot of trauma around it, and I’m working with a counselor. I share this story with you -because just as I am willing to share my Latina story, I have to share my recovery story. We are facing a tsunami of mental health in the wake of covid. Our young people and children are getting hit especially hard—removing the stigma is one way to start, and making sure there is affordable high-quality access to care is a critical component. 

 

When I hit the age of 50, I decided to a career change because, you know, that’s fun. I realized that journalism had evolved into something I wasn’t interested in doing any longer-and an opportunity to move into the nonprofit world opened up. I decided I no longer wanted to be an observer of problems but part of the solution. 

I am now working at Peer Washington-which is a nonprofit that supports the LGBTQ community, minority and underserved communities, veterans, and anyone who needs help with housing, employment, and mental health support. 

We believe that people with lived experience “peers” are the best asset we have to help others who are going through difficult times. I am so proud to work there.

( and yes, we use Smartsheet!! )

 

So now I’m in a job a love, living a sober, happy life, my children are all in college, my husband and I in a strong, healthy relationship, and a worldwide pandemic hits.

 

At the same time a new outcry for racial equity after the murder of George Floyd.

Another awakening moment for me. I can tell you my perspectives have radically changed and continue to evolve. I smugly considered myself a person of color -after all, I’m Latina-but as my 22-year-old daughter pointed out—Hispanic/Latina is an ethnicity, not a race. And frankly, I can walk into a room, and many people think I’m Italian-I can blend in. It made me think about my black friend at a gala event at mopop where I was the mc- she was one of the only black people in the room of 500. I have to recognize the experience of a black person is significantly different-we shared a quiet moment-acknowledging our shared uncomfortableness, and then continued on. After that, I now call myself a non-black person of color.

I am also looking at the fact that I am a product and perpetrator of systemic racism. I have benefited from the same system that has kept many people down. I have to own my role in what’s happening and how to change it. Right now, I’m educating myself-reading books, and attending seminars on diversity, equity, and inclusion. People may say what can you do to change anything. I know at the very least I can speak my truth and be a true ally to my bipoc community. 

What does a true ally mean—let’s start with what it does not mean: It does not mean performative actions from corporations saying, “they stand with black lives matters: and then do nothing- a statement is not an action. It does not mean saying, “we are committed to hiring more bipoc employees” and then going to the same hiring pools. It does not mean creating company bipoc employee groups and then not giving them the time and space to meet and support to make company changes.

Here is what a true ally means: Educating yourself with vetted credential material on racial issues systemic racism and that means all of us -bipoc included. Having uncomfortable conversations about race and calling out discrimination. 

Being a leader or at least supportive in your company, your community, and your family when it comes to bipoc issues and changing systemic racism. 

I want to acknowledge Smartsheet- I—a reporter at heart- looked at what you are doing, and I can see why your workplace is ranked as one of the best in the world to work for. You have a well-thought-out commitment to diversity, inclusion and belonging on your web page. And you go to the next step with a link to provide more information and thoughtfulness. But I wonder how many of the employees here today knew about it and have read the points covered and gone to the shared link. I also respect that you have hired a diversity, inclusion, and equity director-truly putting words into action. 

Thank you, again, for inviting me to share my experience, strength, and hope. Honestly, this was a challenging exercise for me, looking deep at myself, my past, and hopefully a different future. Going forward, I no longer look at myself straddling two worlds. For me, the duality of my identity is an asset, and my feet are firmly planted beneath me in my own valuable space.

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