Today, we continue our Bureau of Western Hemisphere series honoring Hispanic Heritage Month (read foreign service officer Carolina Escalera’s story here) by sharing reflections from Leland Lazarus, our Deputy Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. Leland previously served as a Consular Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Shenyang, China. Before joining the State Department, he worked as an Associate Producer at China Central Television, and taught English Language as a Fulbright scholar in Panama. His articles and commentary have appeared on Sinica podcast, SupChina, TedX, The Diplomat, and The National Interest. Fluent in both Mandarin and Spanish, he holds an M.A. in U.S.-China Relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and a B.A. in International Relations at Brown University.
Leland shares his perspectives on his Hispanic heritage in the following Q&A:
Tell us about yourself and your Hispanic heritage.
I identify as an Afro-Latino whose parents immigrated from Panama to the United States. When growing up, I felt like I didn’t quite belong in either the African-American or Latino communities. On one hand, many of my Black friends didn’t eat the kind of food my family served, and they thought it weird that my parents and I spoke Spanish to each other. On the other hand, some Latino friends doubted my “authenticity” because I don’t have a Latin-sounding name and I did not have a native Spanish accent. But as I grew older, I learned to be proud of both identities and allow them to shape who I am today.
What are some of the traditions that you recall as a child?
I recall weekends at my Abuela’s house, where she would make Panamanian dishes like arroz con pollo, sancocho, and platanos maduros. The smell of the delicious food filled the whole house and even seemed to drift down the street, because family members and friends from across the Brooklyn neighborhood always stopped by throughout the day to get a plate. In the summer when our family threw block parties, we blasted classic salsa hits by Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz, Jimmy Arroyo, and El Gran Combo, and danced the night away.
How has your Hispanic heritage affected your career and outlook on life? How does your heritage influence your current work in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs?
My dual identity as an Afro-Latino has helped me to challenge stereotypes about any one country or people. All too often we say “the Chinese feel about this” or “the Latin Americans think about that”, and we forget that other countries are almost as diverse as the United States—culturally, linguistically, religiously. And I think it is that realization that has influenced me to spot the nuances in a certain country’s attitude towards issues of interest to the United States. While the dominant ruling party, the higher socio-economic class, or the majority ethnic group may think one way, other groups in society may feel very differently. And at the end of the day, it’s that nuance that helps form effective U.S. messaging to specific target audiences within a country.
Why is a diversity of cultures important to the U.S. government and the workforce in general?
If there is one thing that the George Floyd protests taught me, it is that every single country around the world continues to deal with racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and citizens the world over are demanding that their governments take specific, concrete actions to address them. Having a diverse workforce enables the U.S. government to have representatives on the ground who can empathize with the local population—to win hearts and minds by saying “yes, I know your pain because I’ve experienced it too.” But diverse U.S. representatives also reflect the incredible diversity of America and inspire the local population around them. Locals can look at us leading a meeting, or giving a speech, or signing an agreement, and say “s/he is just like me. And if s/he can do it, so can I.”
About the Author: Caitlin Fogarty serves as Public Outreach Coordinator in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.