A Red and Black Column by Agustín Palacios
February 22, 2003
First thg first, let’s define these terms first. Esperame tantito compa, deténme la cerveza, que hay voy. Latinidad can be broadly defined as a political and cultural sense of peoplehood created and maintained primarily by people of Latin American descent in the United States. This Latino/a identity does not exist in such form in Latin America, where national identities are the primary means of identification. In the United States, “Latino/a” has been both referred to as an ethnic or cultural group, and sometimes as a race, which assumes a biological understanding of the group. However, Latinos/as are neither an ethnic or racial group. Latin American cultures are rich and diverse, there is no one Latino culture; the same goes for the racial and ancestral heritage of the population. If you still need a term of classification, I suggest “Latinos/as are a social group.”
Ahora sigue mestizaje, atras de la raya que estoy trabajando. The term “mestizo,” from Spanish “mezcla,” derived from the Latin adjective “mixticius” meaning of mixed background, and was first a colonial category created during Spanish colonization of the Americas to refer to the offspring of Spanish and indigenous people. Later, the term was used to refer to both cultural and racial mixing. Orale, tomen nota, que la cosa se pone sabrosa. First, mestizos/as referred to the outcasts, those who did not live in indigenous or Spanish communities. There were mixed race people who were seen as Indian and even as Spanish. So just because a person was racially mixed it did not necessarily meant that they were seen as mestizos/as. The term mestizo/a was later used to divide the mixed race population from the indigenous population, and thus, mestizo/a and the other racial-colonial terms became a tool of domination. If you were a mestizo/a you were not supposed to be an indian, but just like the Spaniard, feel disdain for the indios. La pura neta, if not, ask your abuela que clase de india es, y vas a ver.
Okay, another note before my point (Cantinflas writes my columns.) For long, the U.S. government has attempted to re-educate Latinos/as on the concept of race, but Latinos/as resist binary identifications and continue to mark the “other” category. The logic goes something like this: I come from Indians and Spanish, but I am not white but I am not an Indian. Or, mi abuela era morena, pero yo no soy Africano. Sounds confusing, but the U.S. system is not any better. Latinos/as are a multiracial and multiethnic population, internally divided by race, class, gender, and sexual hierarchies. But just because historically Latinos/as, in comparison to the U.S., have been more open to racial and cultural mixing, it does not mean that Latin Americans (especially the los gueritos con dinero) have not bought into white supremacy. For Latinos/as, racial identification has a lot to do with culture, skin color, and wealth. Aunque estes bien prieto, you could still deny you are an indio. Y aunque estes bien moreno de pelo chino, you could still deny your Africaness. Usually, these “passings” have been in the direction of whiteness. (Since the sixteenth century Spanish colonization, racialization was something to be negotiated and contested, especially by the descendants of indigenous and African people who were dealing with a racist and exploitative system in which racial classification had social and real material consequences. If you want to know more, read the work by Magali Carrera, R. Douglas Cope, Laura A. Lewis, Magnus Mörner, or Serge Gruzinski. Te digo, mas tarea con este profe.)
Some U.S. Latino/a intellectuals have prematurely predicted the disappearance of the black-white binary that has dominated much of US discourse of race and racial politics. Some have suggested that Latino conception of mestizaje (racial mixing) is a positive antidote to U.S. racism, since it highlights a wiliness/openness to racial mixing. Others look at mestizaje as a positive supplement, or even corrective, to the United States conception of the melting pot. (Note: the melting-pot was never about sharing or mixing of all cultures, just European ones, and still dominated by the Anglo-Saxon one). Let me ask for a pause in the celebration, and say something about the insidious politics of race and white supremacy in Latin America. In Mexico, and other parts of Latin America, racial and cultural mestizaje has been proposed by government officials and intellectuals as a whitening tool and assimilationist strategy to erase the indigenous presence. Si no me creen, read (but really read) a José Vasconcelos’ Raza Cósmica. For Vasconelos, mestizaje was more a process of purification of black and Indian traits, than truly a process of synthesis. For the most part, Latin American intellectual have never asked their populations to identify with the African or the living indigenous person. And this might be why so many Latinos/as identify as “White” in the Census. Then, is Latinidad another movement towards whiteness and a rejection of our indigenous and African ancestry and cultures? Latinidad, as a political identity to bring strategic unity to Latinos/as, can only be useful if we renounce the politics of whiteness embedded in Latino notions of mestizaje and U.S. melting-pot assimilation.
Agustín Palacios is currently Professor of La Raza Studies at Contra Costa College. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. His columns can be found at www.redandblack.florycanto.net