Breaking the Latino stereotype

SACRAMENTO -- Rookie Assemblymember Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, has fair skin, blue eyes and flushed, pink cheeks.

Allen -- who is half-Mexican and half Swedish/Scottish -- is also the face of a changing Latino identity.

His father, Lawrence Allen, a Stanford law graduate and Kansas-born attorney, was working for Mexican mining companies in the early 1930s when he fell in love with Hermina Padilla.

The seamstress from San José, Sinaloa, spoke no English. The two married and Lawrence Allen brought his family to the U.S.

"My parents settled in Hollywood because my mother insisted we stay away from East Los Ángeles," said Allen. "For some strange reason, she didn't want me to hang out with Latinos, yet every summer, she made it a point to send me to México to get in touch with my roots."

The self-proclaimed "cowboy" spent his summer vacations -- from age 7 to 16 -- living with his mother's relatives in Guadalajara, Chihuahua, Mazatlán, México City and Sinaloa.

He played in the small ranchos and pueblos, hung out with his cousins, aunts and uncles, ate authentic Mexican dishes, and learned to speak perfect Spanish (He even dreamed in Spanish).

Most importantly, learned the folk tales and personal stories of previous generations from his elders. The experiences always gave him a renewed sense of identity and Latino pride.

"I never felt alienated because I grew up bicultural. I knew that I was different and I spent quite a bit of my life connecting with my Mexican roots so I know everything about the culture, the misconceptions, the issues they (Mexicans) face and the stereotypes they fall trap to," said Allen, an attorney and father of five.

When he traveled to México, his Spanish skills would sharpen, but he would also lose the valuable skills at the end of each summer when he returned home.

Allen -- who isn't ashamed to deny his Latino prowess, especially during tough times when he would tune in to conversations where Latinos were being talked about in a negative light -- has always tried to educate others about the actual realities and experiences lived by Latinos.

"In the 50s and 60s most of the things that were said about Latinos was really bad so when I would turn around and tell people that I was Latino, they often didn't know what to say to me," said Allen.

Because of this, his mother wanted him to be fully American and fully assimilated. She did not want Spanish to be Allen's primary language yet she made it a point to pass on the Mexican cultural traditions, customs and values whenever she could.

"I never got the flavor of what it was like to be a Latino living in Los Ángeles because I was an Anglo in Hollywood and a Latino in México. But in México, I was the 'güero' and my family was always accepting of me and very loving, except it was hard not to notice that I had all of my dad's physical traits," said Allen.

There was an exception.

"Except my hair. I have a thick head of hair like most Latinos. I don't think I will ever go bald," he added.

Early on Allen learned not to differentiate Latinos among other minorities.

"They want the same things everyone else wants. They want to see their children do well, get an education and build a better life for themselves," said Allen.

Given the circumstances being faced by many Latino immigrants living in the United States, Allen believes there are still many things Americans have yet to learn about Latinos.

"I don't think that most Americans realize the incredible work ethic Mexicans have and how persistent they are when they want something out of life. That's what I saw growing up and those were my experiences. Here is a group of people who are incredibly tuned into the world and the depictions I saw of them as a child that they were lazy were always strange to me because they were and are simply not true," said Allen.

When his mother died at age 91, having spent her whole life as a seamstress making outfits for Hollywood celebrities like Elvis Presley, she left Allen with one important lesson: Value hard work and respect everyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity or position in life.

"If you apply yourself, anything is possible and along with that, my mother stressed the importance of treating everyone with dignity whether they are a janitor or president of the United States -- treat everyone with respect and your life will be good," said Allen.

When asked if he considers himself Latino, Allen doesn't hesitate to respond.

"There is a part of me that is Mexican and that is my heart. Latinos are passionate and we are romantics. We care about people and we feel things deeply and that is the part of me I value the most and I am glad I have that," said Allen.