When the label doesn’t fit – the lived experiences of Les Escobar

November 8, 2021

Have you ever been unsure about who you are? Or felt as though you didn’t really belong in any one community? For public servant Les Escobar, growing up with a mixed cultural background involved a lot of racism that has followed him throughout his life.

In the past few years, he has generously begun to share his lived experiences as part of the Federal Speakers’ Forum (FSF), and we had the chance to sit down with him and chat about his journey.

Growing up in one of the only Chilean families in Carleton Place, Les’s home was full of traditional elements, as he shares, “We never had baking in the house, no homemade cookies or brownies. My parents made traditional Chilean dishes, spoke Spanish and listened to Latin music.”

In addition to having a different home life than other kids in his neighbourhood, Les also looked very different. “The Chilean community didn’t view me as Chilean because I was born in Canada, and the Canadian community didn’t view me as Canadian because I didn’t look Canadian. People weren’t sure if I was Indigenous, Hawaiian, or Middle Eastern.”

At the time, Les’s small group of friends, some of whom were Caribbean and Latino, would keep to themselves, away from other kids. Les was also the victim of regular teasing as his full name is Leslie, which other kids saw as a girl’s name. It’s clear in how Les describes this time of his life that it was very challenging.

But hope was on the horizon.

During college, Les moved to Mexico, where he began to embrace Latino culture. However, life in Mexico had its own challenges, which were not entirely different than what Les had experienced during his school days in Canada.

As he recalls, “To many, I don’t fit the bill of what Latino looks like, especially in the Mexican culture. I stood out. Also, my spoken Spanish has a completely different accent.” Being confused as someone from another ethnicity, indeed from multiple ethnicities, continued to be a struggle for him.

Through the experiences of his two sons, Les has found that today’s world is perhaps too over-aware of aggregated cultural labels. As he describes, “There has been a culture shift over the past few years, which has saddened me at times because I don’t think it’s always moving in a positive direction.”

For example, Les told of when his oldest son came home from school (pre-COVID) and described a classmate as being “African American.” Les asked what this meant, and discovered that in their class, they are not allowed to refer to anyone as “Black.”

Les was surprised at this and asked his son if he knew if this classmate was from the Caribbean and might be offended to be called African American. His son didn’t know there was a difference. Les explained, “It’s like when someone calls us Mexican even though we’re part Chilean. That generalization into a specific group without understanding the individual is a form of discrimination.”

While often done with the best of intentions to ensure inclusivity, labels are often placed on people without a clear understanding of what they mean.

The advice Les gave his son comes from his own personal experience: “Someone at work automatically put me into the BIPOC group (Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour) and I didn’t know what it was. I was offended. When I found out the meaning behind that acronym, I told my co-worker that I’ve worked hard to identify as a Latino male and as Chilean Canadian, and to please not generalize me as just a POC.”

Les is proud of who he is and tries to maintain the core values of family and community that his parents taught him.

Les has been sharing his lived experiences as part of the Federal Speakers’ Forum and has found this to be quite emotionally charged. “Sometimes, I have to take a step back from preparing my presentations,” he says.

“My partner will help me review my materials to make sure the theme or topic isn’t emotionally charged to the point that it sounds negative. When it comes to diversity and racism, there is a lot of room for interpretation, so I am careful with how I craft my presentations.”

Following each speaking event, Les is often so emotionally drained that he tries to book himself an hour to go for a walk to reflect on how he feels.

Being a speaker with the Federal Speakers’ Forum has been a positive experience. Les shares how good it feels to talk about these subjects and to finally have an audience who is willing to listen and make changes. He’s also proud of the different communities that make up the Forum.

“One thing I’ve noticed within the FSF is that we have people from all different walks of life, talking about diversity in so many ways. All communities are part of what we envision inclusion to truly be.”

We asked Les to share some words of wisdom for those interested in becoming speakers with the Federal Speakers’ Forum. It is important to keep in mind racism is a learned behaviour and not something that someone is born with. “What happened in their life to make them act this way? Perhaps there is something you can open their minds to,” says Les.

He continues, “We cannot change everyone but if we can at least open their minds and allow them to reflect, that’s positive!”

Also, be prepared to learn about yourself and others. Les has been surprised to learn how closely related his story is to other people’s, even though they may be from completely different backgrounds. We often get caught in our own bubble of experiences and think that they have only happened to us, but this is not the case.

“I had a DG reach out to me saying that my story hit home, and I was blown away. I know that there are people who just aren’t able to share their experiences, and even though it’s incredibly emotional for me to tell my stories, I am not alone,” Les says. The affirmation that similar experiences have happened to others is an amazing part of being a speaker.

Thinking of becoming a speaker with the Federal Speakers’ Forum? Or just want to learn more about the platform? We encourage you to contact CDI@tbs-sct.gc.ca if you are interested in either becoming an FSF speaker or hosting an event for your team.

Visit the FSF page on GCintranet (internal link).




Diversity and inclusion

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