What Happened When I Stopped Trying To “Fix” My Accent

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When Miguel Melo migrated to the United States in his early 20s to pursue acting, he didn’t realize the way he spoke would affect his ability to book jobs and get an agent. He was told, in no uncertain terms, that he would only make it if he got rid of his Mexican accent while speaking English.
Melo is far from alone in suffering from this type of discrimination. This problem is so prevalent globally — and not just for Latines who speak Spanish- or Portuguese-accented English — that a BBC article described it an example of “linguistic racism.” In the US, research shows that job applicants with a Mexican Spanish accent are at a disadvantage in comparison to applicants with a standard American English accent. Native English speakers have consistently rated salespeople with an accent as less knowledgeable and trustworthy than salespeople with standard American English accents. 

"There’s nothing wrong with accents. They are not a reflection of intelligence or ability. Instead, they are a path to self-love and a connection to our communities and ourselves."

The discrimination Latine people face when applying for jobs is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to accents. Many Latines suffer harassment, abuse, and even physical violence for speaking with an accent. TV and film have perpetuated harmful stereotypes and othered Latines by using Spanish-accented English as a punchline — from Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy to Gloria Delgado-Pritchett in Modern Family. The pressure to speak with a perfect American English accent is so intense that many Latine second-language speakers feel ashamed of how they sound. There are even whole businesses dedicated to teaching second-language speakers how to reduce their accents
However, there’s nothing wrong with accents. They are not a reflection of intelligence or ability. Instead, they are a path to self-love and a connection to our communities and ourselves. That’s why despite all of the obstacles and societal expectations, some Latines have chosen to embrace their accents.
We spoke with four Latines across the world with accented English who have done just this. Through this journey, they have opened themselves up to new possibilities, as well as improved their relationships with themselves and their own stories. 

Miguel Melo, Mexican living and working in LA

I moved to LA from Mexico City to pursue an acting career, and before moving, I spent six months learning English. I studied super hard, like five to six hours every day. When I arrived in the US, I knew I had an accent, and it soon became clear that this was an obstacle for me. Especially when I spoke with agents and managers, everybody would say: “Oh, you need to get an American accent. If you got an American accent, you could be on any TV show and film. Get an American accent first and then call me.” 
Of course, when you say that to a hungry 22-year old, he’s going to do whatever he can to get an American accent. So I took accent-reduction classes, and I got some CDs to practice my American accent. These CDs were marketed as what perfected Salma Hayek’s American accent, so, of course, I was sold. I practiced my vowels; I practiced my pronunciation — my whole life became dedicated to improving the way I spoke English.

"My whole life became dedicated to improving the way I spoke English."

Miguel Melo
It got to the point where I became extra self-conscious of how I sounded, of how I presented myself. If I messed up, I would be too harsh with myself. I felt that it wasn’t just about the accent but also about my career, my livelihood, so I was under a lot of pressure.
At some point, I realized that I was giving more than I was receiving. I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m not being honest with myself just to please others. So I went back to UCLA, so I could learn how to write and direct my own stuff. And now that's what I do for a living.
I wrote and directed my first short film Valiente, which premiered globally in 2021 at Outfest. The film is about Victor, who finds the courage to disclose his HIV status to his partner. As a queer Mexican immigrant in the US, I can say that creating my own opportunities to tell the stories I want to tell has been empowering — and most important of all, I am no longer ashamed of my accent because it’s part of my story.

Michelli do Nascimento Simpson, Brazilian living in the US

I am a Black woman from Brazil who moved to the US at the age of 25 after experiencing a traumatic event that led to me developing Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I arrived in the US with no knowledge of English at all but with a strong determination to learn. Unfortunately, I had limited funds. When I first arrived, I had no family or friends, which made communication almost impossible. I found odd jobs and started learning English at school and at work. 
During this process, I encountered a lot of racism. Despite these challenges, I persevered, continued working, and spoke up when people were impolite or racist. Initially, I made considerable efforts to change my accent and learn "proper" English. However, as I became open to people correcting me, I realized that some individuals were malicious and did not offer constructive feedback.

"I feel proud of my accent and even find enjoyment in it."

Michelli do Nascimento Simpson
When I opened my mental health care clinic and worked with another therapist, people assumed the other therapist was the owner because of my accent; they assumed I lacked the capability to be a business owner. I encountered other professionals who, when I became a supervisor, asked me how I coped with difficulties in pronouncing certain words. In response, I would invite them to converse in the two other languages I know, so they could understand the meaning and also witness their own racism and microaggressions. 
One day, while working as a licensed mental health therapist, a client expressed gratitude for my accent, as it differed from what she was accustomed to and they could remember our conversations better. Another client appreciated having someone with an accent who could understand them, as they have an accent themselves. These experiences led me to embrace my accent and encourage others to ask for clarification if they didn't understand a word I said. Today, I feel proud of my accent and even find enjoyment in it. I now educate other professionals about microaggressions — not just around accents — within the mental health field.

Mayra Peralta, Ecuadorian working remotely between Ecuador and France

I was always aware of my accent, which I found unproblematic until I moved to Paris for college. I attended an international school that offered an English program, so I had classmates and professors from all around the world, including native English speakers and foreigners who spoke flawless English. Although many of them had a subtle, almost unrecognizable accent, I became very self-aware of my accent and tried my best to get rid of it.
After college, I had the chance of interning for a renowned fashion house where people often switched between languages to communicate with design, communication, and sales teams in different parts of the world. Watching people from different nationalities embracing their accents helped me to embrace my accent too and feel proud of my origins.

"Watching people from different nationalities embracing their accents helped me to embrace my accent too and feel proud of my origins."

Mayra Peralta
I am unfortunately a perfectionist, which meant that for a long time, I refused to accept my accent because I mistakenly believed that having an accent was something to be ashamed of. To me, it meant I wasn’t good enough, and it gave away where I came from. I was scared of being mocked. 
But now I think there is more power to embracing oneself than blending with the rest so as not to stand out. As I grew older, I simply stopped caring so much about the way others regarded me and stopped walking on eggshells not to bother people with my accent. Now, I have fully embraced who I am, where I come from, and how my origins have shaped the person I am — accent included.

Laura Carniel, Brazilian based in London

I learned English by watching TV shows while growing up in Brazil. My parents were always talking about the importance of knowing how to speak English if I wanted to get a good job in the future. At the time, we didn’t have any money to pay for English classes, so I taught myself through TV shows and songs. 
It was not until I moved to London in 2017 that I realized people would instantly know I was not from there because of how I sounded. At first, I didn't mind questions about where I was from because I thought they could be an interesting way to start a conversation — until I encountered some stereotypes about Brazilian women that made me uncomfortable. I also started to notice that sometimes when I was the only foreigner in a group of British people, they would exclude me from the conversation, not speak directly to me, or make fun of my accent and imitate words I didn't know how to say.

"They would exclude me from the conversation, not speak directly to me, or make fun of my accent and imitate words I didn't know how to say."

Laura Carniel
After a few years living in the UK and trying my best to fit in, something shifted and I started to feel more and more connected to Brazil. Instead of wanting to avoid having a conversation where people would bring up stereotypes about Brazilian women, I felt ready to challenge those notions. Embracing my Brazilian accent came with the embrace of Brazilian culture and the creation of a film project, which I worked on with two other friends. Our project  brings independent Brazilian films to London and aims to change narratives about Brazil in the UK. 
Instead of trying to dress more similarly to British people, trying to be less loud to accommodate others, I try to live my life in the same way I would if I lived back home. Being Brazilian became a big part of my identity while living here. I learned how to vocalize my dislike when a native English speaker makes fun of my accent, and now I have a big group of British friends who appreciate me for who I am and see my accent as something to be celebrated, rather than ridiculed.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity. 

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