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Reducing An Entire Culture To One Tired, Toilet-Scrubbing Trope

In this Jan. 10, 2015 file photo, Kelly Osbourne arrives at The Art of Elysium Heaven Gala at Hangar 8 in Santa Monica, Calif. Osbourne apologized last week for comments she made on "The View" about Latinos cleaning Donald Trump's toilets. (Vega/Invision/AP)
In this Jan. 10, 2015 file photo, Kelly Osbourne arrives at The Art of Elysium Heaven Gala at Hangar 8 in Santa Monica, Calif. Osbourne apologized last week for comments she made on "The View" about Latinos cleaning Donald Trump's toilets. (Vega/Invision/AP)
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When my father came to America from Nicaragua, his agronomy degree was useless, so he took a job as a janitor in a local grammar school. It was no doubt humbling for him; once a government-employed scientist, he left his country during the revolution in the 1970s. Over 30 years and an MBA later, he’s not ashamed of his time with a mop in hand, or any of the other menial jobs he had. He doesn’t let those times identify him either.

He now runs a nonprofit in East Boston, providing services to other immigrants, adults and children, many of whom work as custodians, servers and cooks. Some of them may work in those professions for their entire careers. Others may transition into more white-collar work.

I don’t believe she is a racist. However, Osbourne’s joke does come from the same pool of ignorance as Trump’s, and she’s not the first would-be ally to make such a gaffe.

None of them are identified by their jobs, their economic status; they’re not defined by the people they work for, or the languages they speak or can’t speak. Some of the younger population he serves will go to college; some won’t. Some will get good jobs; others will struggle.

Yet they’ll all hear the same jokes, no matter their paths. Jokes about not having papers or about their accents; jokes about low-wage jobs, like trimming hedges or scrubbing toilets; jokes that connect low expectations of employment and economy to their names, their skin tone, their parents’ native language. Sometimes the jokes will come from other Latinos. Sometimes they’ll come from people on TV — people like Kelly Osbourne.

In addressing Donald Trump’s ridiculous comments about Mexicans, Osbourne said this during a recent appearance on "The View": “If you kick every Latino out of this country, then who is going to be cleaning your toilet, Donald Trump?”

Rosie Perez, who was onstage with Osbourne, fired back, “Latinos are not the only people to do that.”

Osbourne, apparently realizing her mistake, said, “Come on, you know I would never mean it like that.”

Osbourne was likely trying to make fun of Trump’s own hypocrisy. After all, who hasn’t made a joke that rich white people call for deportation while hiring Latinos, or taking the joke further — undocumented immigrants, for their house and lawn care? Taking jabs at Trump isn’t unwarranted: undocumented Polish immigrants reportedly built Trump Tower in New York City, and the construction and hospitality industries are largely comprised of Latino laborers.

But Osbourne's comment misfired. Contrary to the social media firestorm, I don’t believe she is a racist. However, Osbourne’s joke does come from the same pool of ignorance as Trump’s, and she’s not the first would-be ally to make such a gaffe.

First, I’d like to point out that such language often lumps Latinos and undocumented immigrants into the same bunch — which is totally inaccurate. Sadly, it’s hard to ignore that these words often get used interchangeably. That seems to be the case here, from both Trump and Osbourne.

On that note, defenders of Latino immigrants (documented or not) often ask, “But who will pick our fruit/trim our hedges/clean our bathrooms?" This destructively ties the immigrant's value to their work as menial laborers; more valuable as a commodity than as people. As though an entire group of people have no higher aspirations.

Yes, it's true that many undocumented immigrants do hold such jobs. A recent Pew Hispanic study found that "62 percent [of undocumented workers] held service, construction and production jobs, twice the share of U.S.-born workers." However, there are hopeful trends emerging as well. The same study found that from 2007 to 2012 there was an increase in undocumented immigrants working white collar jobs, accounting for 13 percent of the unauthorized workforce.

Osbourne apologized. But unfortunately, by perpetuating the stereotype, the damage was already done.

But such nuance is largely missing in the mainstream media, and throughout popular culture. Certainly, stereotypes persist in Hollywood depictions of Latinos. (Lifetime's "Devious Maids," for example, had a cast of Latina leads, but they were all, well, maids. In many TV shows and movies, minor Latino characters only appear working menial jobs — often with a limited knowledge of English, and even more often, providing the punchline to a predictable joke. Rarely are Latino characters portrayed with much — if any — depth.)

Whatever her intention, Kelly Osbourne's comments contributed to a pool of collective ignorance — one that deforms and devalues and reduces a diverse group of people to a caricature. Osbourne apologized. But unfortunately, by perpetuating the stereotype, the damage was already done.

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Alejandro Ramirez Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Alejandro Ramirez is a freelance writer and the online editor of Spare Change News. He has an MFA in creative nonfiction.

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