What defines a person of color in America? Soledad O’Brien has asked that very question numerous times in her reporting on CNN and elsewhere. It’s complicated. Skin color affects racial identity. In contemporary America, those who are not “white” and have other, varying shades of skin pigmentation present challenges for certain Americans. How gender plays into discrimination is also highlighted in the following discussion when Nevada Capital News’ correspondent  Maribel Cuervo interviews Rita, a Brazilian immigrant and practicing lawyer in Reno.  

Hear an interview with Rita.

Rita came to the United States when she was nine years old.

“I came to Chicago in the late ’80s. My parents emigrated from Brazil. My parents had actually emigrated twice to the US. My older brother was born in Chicago. I was born in San Paulo, Brazil. Then we all came back in the late ’80s … my parents knew other Brazilians (in Chicago) … when they came back, they still knew some of the people who had come earlier and stayed.”

Why did your parents come to the US?

“I’ve heard many, many different things from them … better opportunities for us … when you’re from lower socio-economic background, you still have opportunities, whereas in Brazil, if you come from a lower socio-economic class, it can be a much greater struggle … I think that was one of the driving forces. They wanted to give us the ability to do what we wanted to do in life.”

How was the transition for you?

“It was exciting. I’d never been on a plane … we took a plane to the US, we came in January to Chicago. I had never seen snow in my life … I had a lot of misconceptions about the US, being a little kid. I remember this so clearly. I thought that all Americans were blond haired and blue eyed. When I got off of the airplane in Chicago, I’m looking around, and I asked, ‘Mom, are we in America?’  ‘Yeah, we are.’ ‘Where are all the blonde people? It was, it was different … exciting to me. I don’t think I was shocked. I think I was too young to be really shocked. Kids, we learn English quickly. It was a brand new toy for me.”

Rita grew up in a diverse neighborhood in the Chicago.

“I think I was lucky because the neighborhood I grew up in was the most diverse neighborhood in all of Chicago. Almost every one of my friends was an immigrant. We had kids from Russia, we had kids from Korea, we had kids from the Philippines, Greece. We had Iraqi kids, I mean, you name it, it was so much diversity. My experience was all my friends’ experiences. We all spoke a different language at home. We all ate different foods. We all had the immigrant experience. I was very, very lucky. In a way, for me, it was very easy … I was in a community of immigrants.”

Did you face discrimination?

“It’s kind of interesting. If you’re a black or brown person, we always talk about ‘passing,’ right. I’m very light-skinned … I have an Italian last name … I was young, I speak English without an accent. For me, it was very easy to ‘pass.’ 

“I’ll tell you a story from law school. I went to a judge, an Italian American judge, and I said, ‘I’m applying for a scholarship for minorities, will you help me out?’ He looks at me … ‘Minorities? Aren’t you the Italian girl from Chicago?’

“I think for most of my life, my experience has been a bit different because I pass. People don’t assume … when I tell people ‘oh, no, I’m an immigrant. I’m Brazilian,’ people are shocked. When they look at me, they don’t see that. 

“I had someone once tell me. ‘Oh, you were born in Brazil. Were your parents in the military?’ No, I’m Brazilian. My family is Brazilian. He couldn’t put two and two together, because he’s looking at someone who speaks English, who’s (apparently)white like him, and he’s like, ‘why was this person born in Brazil?'”

After being accepted in a competitive boarding school, Rita was once told she was hired to fulfill a quota.  

“People just assume that any achievement (of mine) is not because I achieved it, it’s … what they call a quota …  they only want you to fill their quotas … they need some Latinos.” 

What brings you to Reno and what keeps you in Reno?

“We came to Reno seeking out a little bit different style of life from Chicago.  Chicago is a big city, it’s a beautiful city, but it’s also got a lot of problems … big city life … very rushed. So we were looking for a little bit calmer lifestyle. What keeps me in Reno is it’s such an interesting place. There is a very progressive side to Reno and a not so progressive side. There are a lot of problems here, and I love to (help) solve those problems … I still get kind of that old school reaction, ‘oh you’re from somewhere different,’ so I think it’s an opportunity to teach people.

“If you look at law schools, the majority (of students) are women, 55 percent women, 45 percent men, but who are in the positions of power? Who are the highest paid attorneys? Who are the ones running the big law firms? They’re still largely white men. It wasn’t a secret that those were the people who said, ‘No, we don’t want women in this profession, you know, women are going to ruin this profession. Women are too emotional to be in a court of law.’  Right … I think that as a lawyer, as someone doing the work I do, I try to fight against all of that … that applies to immigration. 

“I was told in my first month here in Reno, ‘Oh, you know, my family’s from Reno, and we don’t need Chicago liberals like you coming to ruin our town.’

Maribel concluded the interview with, “I’m glad people like you are here making a difference and helping the community that needs the most help.”