A common misconnection that exists today rests on the notion that there are no racial hierarchies in Latin American countries or within the Latino communities in the United States. In other words, Latino (or Hispanic) is itself a race. For many, this conversation is a pointless squabble that halts the true need for unity amongst marginalized groups in the United States. Unfortunately, overlooking the importance of this issue has in fact delineated separation and a lack of interest in each other’s problems.
The shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by a half-Peruvian and half-White man named George Zimmerman, the rise of so-called Hispanic conservatives like Ted Cruz, Al Cardenas and Marco Rubio, and the examples of racist comments by Latinos in the media like Rodner Figueroa, have made it impossible to have a conversation of Latinos and race. It is becoming clear that Whites from Latin America, although marginalized by Anglo-Whites, have been able to pass as honorary Whites and benefit from the inequalities formed by White Supremacy. This is not new, and it has a history.
Many people who neglect to explore the history of Latin Americans in the United Sates fail to analyze people like the famous white Cuban Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), who penetrated the American television series “I Love Lucy” (1951) at a time when Black people were not even allowed to perform next to White actors. Lucy (Lucille Ball) was Arnaz’ real wife, and both enjoyed a long and prosperous career in the film industry. In 1954 Arnaz was even able to get a role as the famous Don Juan.
During this time, White Latin Americans were seen as foreign, inferior and exotic and yet many passed and enjoyed White Privilege. Even all three of John Wayne’s wives were from Latin America at a time when anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiments were powerful hateful discourses. Less mentioned is the famous Afro-Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernández, who to date is considered was one of the most successful pioneering Black actors of the African-American film industry. Despite Hernández being from Latin America, he had to take Black roles precisely because he was Black and experienced the same segregation as other Blacks in the United States. This was also common in Latin America, where Blacks were not allowed to be actors while Whites enjoyed wearing blackface and dehumanized black people.
According to Jill Lane, blackface was used as a way to create a Cuban identity independent from Spain. However, one can argue that Blackness was seen as a proxy for national discourse and not for racial democracy. Anti-Blackness was occurring transnationally between the United States and Latin America. A Euro-diasporic anti-Black establishment was taking place, a cruel phenomenon, which can be traced back to colonialism and African slavery. Arnaz was able to perform White roles and even marry an Anglo-white actress, but the same could not be remotely fathomed for Hernández.
While many invoke the idea of mestizaje (racial mixing) and the one-drop rule, it did not determine Latin American identity racially. The false idea that you were non-White if any of your ancestors was not White has been a common belief that undergirded racial categories and Whiteness as passing in the United States. Regardless if Arnaz was considered White or not, his Whiteness allowed him to pass and have access to Hollywood. Arnaz benefited from the system of White Supremacy. While Arnaz was able to remain Cuban (while also being marginalized), Hernández was not able to be Puerto Rican because he was Black.
The impossibility of Afro descendants from Latin America being able to play Latin American (or Latino) roles would be further marked after the Civil Rights Movement. Black people from Latin America were segregated and became part of Black communities in the United Sates. Eminent figures like Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Carlos Cooks, Chano Pozo and Mario Bauza among others formed part of the Harlem Renaissance. From the 1950s through the 1970s, there was a rise and fall of an uneasy coalition between Latinos and African-Americans. A part from the internal conflicts and White backlash that resulted from the Civil Rights Movement, the most salient aftermath was the cementing of racial essentialisms. Blackness was seen solely as African-American and Latinos became “Brown” while Whiteness became Anglo-whites. These political and racial constructions remained unquestioned until recently.
The discussion of Latino Whiteness was rarely brought up and instead focused minimally on Latino Blackness. For example, Felipe Luciano’s “Jíbaro My Pretty Nigger” encouraged his Blackness and Puertoricaness.
It appears there was a time where you could be both Black and Latino but not White and Latino. The Nuyorican movement was occurring while the Black Arts Movements was taking place as well.
So the question remains: do Latinos “Brown” themselves to create Latino as a race because the racial discourse in the United States does not allow them to be a part of it? Another more important question is this: what occurred as a result of Latinos becoming one Brown (mixed) race and Blackness exclusive to African-Americans? As a result, Latin American markets and elites were able to carry out their anti-Black agendas, which led to the rise of all-White soap operas protected under the construction of mestizaje or Brownness. Afro-Latinos and Indigenous peoples were made either made invisible or reduced to adopting roles as musicians and sports athletes. This benefitted African-Americans tremendously because it allowed them to fully immerse themselves within American nationalism, which required separating their history from Latinos and Afro-Latinos while envisioning Latinos in the United States as people who were never part of the nation to begin with.
As Wilson Jeremiah Moses states in his book Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms (1982): “Black messianism is the point in our cultural mythology where nationalism and assimilationism come together most strikingly” (viii). African-American sitcoms resulted in Black essentialistist and racial hierarchies that excluded Afro-Latinos in the U.S and forced other Black migrants to assimilate to African Americanism. African-American sitcoms like “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times” were mostly Christian, monolingual and family-based. Latino sitcoms like “¿Qué Pasa USA?”, “Chico and the Man” and “A.E.S Hudson Street” were white, Christian, bilingual and also family-based.
These racially and ethnically constructed divisions not only excluded the larger diverse Black communities in the U.S., but it also formed a Blackness antithetical to Latino identity. While Latin American markets created all-White soap operas (which has become ever more transnational) the U.S media also created these divisions. In Christina Saenz-Alcántara’s article Who and What the Hell Is a White Hispanic?, one of the many arguments presented is that Latino Whiteness is not possible because of the myths of mestizaje in some way makes Latinos all equal:
For example, in the U.S., there is the one-drop rule. If you have even one ancestor who is African, Asian, or indigenous, you’re automatically non-white. In Puerto Rico, the one-drop rule is that you are considered white if you have even one white ancestor in the previous four generations (known as the Regla del Sacar or Gracias al Sacar laws). In the U.S., a Latino historically is not white since Latinos by definition are a mixture of Spanish, indigenous, African and Asian blood.
However, according to the New York Times (see a counterargument here), in 2000 over 2.5 million Americans (numbers are more than likely higher now) changed their race from “some other race” to “White.”In the recent 2010 census, 75.8 % identified as White and 12.4 % identified as Black. Recently, because the Census Bureau finally realized that Latino is not a race, it is considering changing the ethno-racial category of “Hispanic” by allowing Latinos to choose a race for 2020. A recent document from the United States Census Bureau states that 1) three-fourths of growth in the White population was due to growing numbers of Hispanic Whites and, 2) Hispanic Whites comprised a larger proportion of the multiple White race population than the White-alone population.
So where does this leave us?
Today We are Paying the Price
The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman caused many to revisit the notion of Latino Whiteness. The article published by Latino Rebels, The White Hispanic” Label: Yes, People, Racism is a Latino Thing, Too, actually made some good points at the need to revisit race and Latino identity, while Cesar Vargas’ The Privilege of the White Hispanic: Leaving Out the Rest caused, to my amazement, a stir from White Latinos. Nonetheless, we also need African-Americans to begin embracing Afro-Latinos among other Black communities who do not conform to an African American nomenclature. Unfortunately, as I had predicted, anti-Black racism has reached their doorstep. Rodner Figueroa compared Michelle Obama to a simian from the Planet of the Apes and was fired from Univision.
Figueroa’s excuse was that he was “mixed.” However, Univision, one of the most anti-Black television channels I’ve ever seen, made firing Figueroa seem like an oxymoron.
This Saturday, the Miss Puerto Rico winner for the Miss America pageant was suspended for anti-Muslim tweets.
Last night, the African-American actor Steve Harvey was attacked on Twitter from racist White Latinos (and other Latinos as well and Anglo-whites) who wanted Miss Colombia to win the Miss Universe contest. These profile used abhorrent language, as the tweets below show. All this hatred came as a result of Harvey mistakenly naming Miss Colombia the winner instead of Miss Philippines, the real winner.
This is why we need to have a serious conversation about Latino Whiteness. But for that to happen, we need to have a serious conversation on Euro-diasporic identity and anti-Blackness. We need to have conversations on the Casta systems that are still more powerful than ever and are the permanent results of the hundreds of years of African slavery in the Americas.
White Latinos need to own up to their Whiteness because we just can’t continue to afford this to continue any further. We also need African-Americans to understand that Latin America has over 200 million Afro-descendants and that going to Africa also entails going to Colombia, Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico, among other countries. Blackness does not have to solely mean African-American and Whiteness does not have to solely mean Anglo-white.
African-American academics need to stop erasing Afro-Latinos from African-American history.
They also have to become more open with Blackness.
They can’t wrap their Blackness with the American flag, exclude other Black people in the U.S and then say that they are all about Black unity.
History has made identity constructions that are reversible. We just have to work together and be honest about where we stand in the world.
William García is an Afro-Nuyorican raised between New York and Puerto Rico. He has a BA and an MA in history from the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. His research interests include Afro-Latino history, hip-hop and reggaetón in the Caribbean and Puerto Rican diaspora. He is currently an MA student in curriculum and teaching at the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @webdubois2014.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An original version of this op-ed said that Zimmerman was of Jewish descent. He is not. A correction was made to one sentence.