Why the Hilaria Baldwin Scandal Is Painful for Immigrants — Including Me

"What Hilaria did is not funny: it's a slap in the face," PEOPLE's Ale Russian writes of her own experience in a first-person essay

hilaria baldwin, ale russian
Photo: getty images/instagram

In the last week of 2020, yet another celebrity scandal has taken over the internet. But this latest one strikes a painful note for many immigrants across the country.

Last week, Hilaria Baldwin, wife of actor Alec Baldwin, began trending on Twitter as social media users — including journalist Tracie Morrissey and Twitter user @lenibriscoe — dug into her past, alleging that she fabricated Spanish roots after having been born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. Additionally, Morrissey and @lenibriscoee and more claimed to have evidence that the accent she often uses is not real.

In videos that emerged since, Hilaria is heard using an exaggerated Spanish accent in old interviews and even saying she forgot the word “cucumber” while filming a video for the Today show years ago. Evidence also emerged that her real name is Hillary, and not the foreign-sounding Hilaria.

While Hilaria later posted a lengthy and defensive video on Instagram, admitting to her real name and explaining why she feels connected to the Spanish culture, it’s important to make sure it's clear why someone like the American-born influencer appropriating a different culture is painful to the millions of immigrants still facing rejection in America.

I know because I personally felt the irony of her finding success by taking on a more foreign-sounding name and accent while those parts of my identity have been taken away.

My family moved to the United States from Venezuela when I was 8 years old and my brother had just turned 7. This isn’t a tragic tale; in fact, I previously wrote a personal essay for PEOPLE outlining how privileged my family’s immigration was in comparison to the atrocities immigrants are still facing at the Mexico-U.S. border. I’m very grateful and proud to call myself an American citizen now.

But from the very moment my life here began, my culture started being stripped away. Hilaria got to reinvent herself with a more foreign name, while mine was changed on my very first day of school.

My parents named me Alejandrina, a beautiful name that came from my grandmother and one I love very much. Yet my name was quickly Americanized. I stopped using my real, legal name because it was hard for people to say. Even the easier Ale, pronounced like the beginning of Alejandro, was changed to “Allie” by my first school teacher. I’ve been going by that pronunciation ever since, erasing a key element of my identity.

ale russian
Ale Russian and her family shortly after arriving in the U.S.

My last name is also forever butchered, with little attempt made to pronounce it correctly. (No, it’s not actually said like the language, and I’m not Russian.)

I’m not the only immigrant whose name has been changed to better suit American society. There's a long history of the practice, and people from many cultures have faced the same humiliating discrimination.

It’s a painful topic, one that becomes even more hurtful when someone like Hilaria, a self-professed white woman, thinks it’s no big deal.

And watching interviews in which Hilaria exaggerated her accent, one that she appropriated as an adult, is downright infuriating. While she found success this way, American immigrants from all over the world — especially immigrants of color — are constantly ostracized and marginalized, ridiculed and given fewer opportunities, all for not having “perfect” English. It’s a great source of shame for so many who bend over backward to try to find a place in a society that still largely rejects them.

The decades-old rejection of foreign accents is so widespread and traumatizing that entire generations of children were never taught their native languages by their immigrant parents so that their offspring wouldn’t have the accent they struggled with, the accent that made their life more difficult every single day. These parents were robbed of sharing their beautiful cultures with their children just so they wouldn’t go through the pain of being made fun of and “othered” like they were.

Yet Hilaria used an accent, one that is absurd and almost comedic, to make a name for herself.

I can't imagine what she meant to do when she started appropriating the language and customs of a different culture. But I did feel the hurt for myself, my family and every immigrant who can’t flaunt and celebrate their culture in the way she did for one that is not her own.

What Hilaria did is not funny: it’s a slap in the face to so many who are still feeling the effects of actually having the culture that she pretends to have.

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