Why I Was Mortified By Sean Penn’s “Joke”

The Academy Awards were going great. My friends, dormmates and I got together and watched the whole show with boxes of pizza and winner predictions. Neil Patrick Harris pulled some good old puns from his magical pun drawer, Big Hero 6 won big, my boy Eddie Redmayne won best actor and one of my personal heros, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, had just won best director for what was the best movie of 2014, Birdman.

And then Sean Penn cracked that green card joke.

I get it, they’ve worked together. They’re colleagues. They’re friends. Its a ha-ha moment that they probably hugged out later.

But as the whole room fell silent–my friends stopped chewing on their chips, some put their pizzas down, someone choked on a sip of cherry coke–I felt some nervous eyes flutter around me and my three other Latino friends who were in the room as well.

Why? Because as funny as the joke might have been to Penn, his comment reflected something that many Americans believe. That we, the “foreigners,” are here to steal your jobs, your awards, your honors.

Penn’s comment was mortifying to me, and the millions of Latinos living in this country, who are working hard everyday to build a future to be proud of. His comment was mortifying because Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is proof that you can make it big outside of your country, in America, with an audience way different than the one you grew up with. Because I, like Inarritu, dream of working in the media. Because I, like Inarritu, am Mexican. Because I, like Inarritu, am Latina.

I don’t have a green card. I am an international student, I depend on my visa, I depend on my good grades and good legal standing. And I’m okay with it, I’m lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to study in this great country, but it hurts to see that all the efforts I’ve made to be here are diminished by the mere fact that I am not American, that I wasn’t born here, that I apparently wouldn’t deserve to win an Academy Award because of my nationality.

When Sean Penn said “who gave this son of a bitch his green card?” he reminded not only me, but millions of other people who live here without a green card, or who recently received their green card, or who have worked their entire lives to get a green card, that no matter the success we might find someday, it will be diminished by the fact that our nationality is different, that we came here “to steal your jobs,” that we are here to “steal your awards.”

But that is so far away from the truth. We are not here because we want your jobs. We are not here because we want your money, your awards, your validation. We are here because we want to work hard, because we want to get better, we want to succeed under our own criteria, we want to improve our lives, we want to achieve things that we wouldn’t be able achieve in our own countries. We’re here because of the opportunities, because of the chances, because of the outlook. Because of the amazing dream that America can be.

I get where Sean Penn was coming from. I really do. He was trying to be funny and I know that deep inside he’s proud that his old friend Inarritu made it so big. Sadly, there are people not only here but around the world that took his comment seriously, who banged their chests and nodded wholeheartedly and yelled “Yes! You’re completely right!” and felt with warm comfort how their hate and racism was validated in Hollywood’s most important night by one stupid, flyaway comment.


Mariana Alfaro is a freshman at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is very interested in writing long-form pieces. She was born and raised in San Salvador, El Salvador, and is half-Mexican.  If you are interested in submitting a guest post please visit our application page.


Featured image of Sean Penn presenting the award for best picture at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles by JOHN SHEARER/INVISION/AP


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