Have you ever been told to look or be “less Latina?” It happened to MSNBC journalist Mariana Atencio shortly before she was due to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2017. Venezuelan-born Atencio spoke of the incident this week in an interview with Daniela Pierre-Bravo for the NBC News series Know Your Value.
“‘Mariana, I just wanted to make sure you’re prepared for such a prestigious gathering … Please don’t look too Latina,’” the manager told her, an encounter that Atencio includes in her memoir Perfectly You. “Have them pick out something demure. Not too colorful or tight. Think Ivanka Trump, okay?'”
Atencio told Pierre-Bravo that she had shared this humiliating exchange in her memoir to openly address what the journey is like as a Latina trying to break into an exclusive industry. “I wanted to tell the anecdote [in the book] not to harp on the negative, but to remind readers that these things still happen and that we have to call them out and have conversations as adults about how we can get past them,” she said.
Wanting to style herself in red, yellow, and blue at the Correspondents Dinner was what she described in her memoir as a small tribute to my heritage. “I chose a Sofia Vergara-style mermaid gown with yellow undertones, big royal blue earrings, and a red clutch. ¡Perfecto!” After the call from her manager, though, she felt deflated. “This person was making me feel smaller and smaller with each word,” she wrote in Perfectly You. “Can you imagine someone in your field asking you to please not look so African American? Or Asian? Or white? Don’t look so Muslim or Christian? How do you change who you are?”
Ultimately, Atencio deferred to her manager’s counsel and fashioned herself after someone who symbolizes, for so many Americans (and for people all over the world, actually), the epitome of class, success, womanhood, and assimilation; it’s unclear if her manager could wrap her head around all of the levels of wrong there. “I wore the Ivanka-type gown that had been suggested,” Atencio concluded. “Even though I smiled for the cameras, I was miserable.”
Atencio’s journey of self-realization is something that has required experience and strength, but also lots of love and encouragement from her supporters. The week of Perfectly You’s release, she told BELatina in an interview that she found a lot of inspiration to be “Perfectly You” from her fans and followers on social media. She heard — first hand — from people who finally felt seen through her presence. “’We see you as one of us up there, we love hearing you pronounce your name the way it’s meant to be pronounced. We love seeing how you dress, honoring your culture, and how you cover the stories of communities.’ I began to sense this thirst for a message of encouragement. To tell them that they could also be on that screen … how their stories were of value.”