The Violent History of Latin America Is ALL About Promoting Whiteness (OPINION)

Sep 9, 2020
6:30 PM

(Public Domain)

All Latinos are nationally oppressed, but not all Latinos are racially or ethnically oppressed.

How can a colonized and “othered” people simultaneously be enablers of their own subjugation? As nicaragüense revolutionary Augusto Sandino put it, “Latin American workers suffer a double exploitation, that of national capitalism as well as foreign”, exposing the solidarity between the Latin American, European, and U.S/Canadian elite in ravaging the Latino working and poor. Our countries, our working and poor that have been continuously kept poor by the criollo (Spanish descendant) elite.

A common error that the Latin American diaspora makes of itself is centering the experiences of Latinidad to the nation they are in. In the case of Arturo Domínguez’s “White Latinos Don’t Exist, Wannabes Do,” the focal point of our experience is that of the U.S., a colonial beast that has longed waged its violent interests over the lives of our people. But to make the claim that whiteness can never apply to Latinos by using discrimination faced in an Anglo-centric country is a faulty method of analysis. We in the diaspora must be aware, the Latino experience neither begins nor ends in the U.S. or any Western country for that matter. For this reason, as people with dualities, our ties to both the place we live and the places we come from, it’s important we understand the differences in this precarious conversation between the U.S. and our homelands.

Inception of Race in Latin America

Race, as it is a colonial construct, functions differently in the U.S. and Canada than it does in Latin America. This is primarily based on the different methods of colonization carried by the Anglo-Saxons of the north to the Iberian method in the south. But the one thing all countries in the Americas share is the concept of whiteness due to producing an economy and society reliant on slave labor. It is the creation of whiteness primarily that created the Other, the non-white. However, race did not begin with the enslaving of Africans people, but it developed through the divisions of labor and miscegenation breeding a plethora of racial categories traced to the ancestry of one’s parents, referred to as the Spanish caste system.

Racial classifications dictated which set of laws applied to certain people, taxes they would have to pay, their relationship to the church, how they could dance, how to assemble. The Spanish created a highly bureaucratic and thorough legal system that pervaded itself into every faucet of everyday life.

This was relative to one’s own racial caste, thus class caste. As Ann Twinam writes in Purchasing Whiteness, by 1795 the Spanish legalized the purchasing of documents that declare whiteness, essentially taking away the purchaser’s status of a “disgraced” person, disgraced by their heritage that is. Miscegenation, or the interbreeding of racial groups, was encouraged in colonial Iberian American and often used by colonized people so that their future generations could escape the colonial plight bore onto them. We call this process, the “whitening” of people, mestizaje.

In the Laws of Burgos (1512), of the 35 laws, one in particular prevented non-Christian Spaniards from emigrating to the colonies. What does this mean? Those interested in traveling had to provide proof of whiteness—which meant the lack of Jewish or Muslim ancestry, as the Spanish colonial project was to whiten the Americas. The Inquisition then made its way to the Americas to root out those considered non-white from positions of influence in Spain and its colonies. Over 32,000 people were killed and up to 200,000 Jewish people were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.

The Spanish not only introduced a concept of whiteness, but they institutionalized the stratification of people’s value to society by it. Latin American racism is not a phenomena, nor should we allow such shallow criticisms of Latin American racism as if it were something natural to our people and not a direct result of our subjugation. But while the Spanish exported this plague, our nation-states and our national identities mirrored and extended these violent policies. Mara Loveman’s Whiteness in Latin America studies the national censuses post-independence and its connection to race. She says “with very few exceptions, every Latin American census that includes a direct ‘race’ query lists ‘white’ as an official option”—from even 1850, whiteness was officially recognized in Latin America.

There are those that believe that the victory over the Spanish empire brought the liberation of the peoples in Latin America. In reality, it became the day the agents of Spanish colonization became the proprietors to the fruits of Latin America. Inspired by revolutionary cries for the end of monarchy, the criollos in South America concluded that to preserve their class interests and rising power in the Americas, they needed to declare independence from the colonial empire that had been hindering their prosperity. And while Spain no longer ruled across the Atlantic, Latin America entered an age of neocolonialism, an occupation-by-proxy at the hands of U.S. and British imperialism in collaboration with the criollo elite.

Despite the Americas being lands of native people built on the labor of enslaved Africans, like its northern counterpart, the newly independent countries in Latin America had to build a national identity. It’s independence movement gave the inheritance of each nation to wealthy criollos, thus its institutions mirrored the vitriolic violence that comes hand-in-hand with colonialism. After all, Dominican elite Américo Lugo had argued “due to the ‘deficiency’ of the Dominican racial mixture,” Dominicans would have to be taught by the elite what the Dominican nation was, adding that Dominicans were not ready for democracy as in the U.S.

At the turn of the 20th century, Latin American governments began a campaign to whiten the population through the migration of Europeans, intended for the exclusion and “humane” elimination of the poor, working, native, and Black. Between 1870 and 1930, 13 million Europeans immigrated into our homelands, primarily to Argentina, Brasil, and Chile. Peru and Venezuela attempted to compete by subsidizing travel and housing for Europeans interested in living there, all while their own people who built the nation lived in abject poverty.

National Oppression

Latin Americans in Europe, the U.S., and Canada experience discrimination, full stop. Latin American countries have been ravaged by those of the Global North since the arrival of Europeans upon our lands. From coups, CIA covert intervention, the funding of right-wing death squads, Latin American people of all races have been forced out of their homelands and into the clutches of its largest oppressor. In this way, they’re doubly-doomed at home and abroad.

Domínguez’s piece includes a 2017 National Public Radio (NPR) poll that asked Latinos if they’ve experienced discrimination seeking work and housing, of which one-third reported they did. And this comes as no surprise of course. However, the polling is questionable. Latinos are not monolithic in class—like any group of people, but especially not in race. We don’t know the race or national backgrounds of the respondents. Then we must raise the reality of Afro-Latinos that are never read as Latin American but as Black American, were they polled as well?

The problem that exists for us is that for a people as diverse as we are, the West treats us as if we weren’t. But Yankee ignorance is not the sole culprit, Latin American governments and media present a caricature of the typical Latin person: a fair-skinned white or mestizo.

My father is Black, and my mother is a Chola. I am Afro-Peruvian. But though I am closer to my mother’s heritage, this doesn’t stop the Peruvian authorities from treating me as an Afro-Peruvian or have other Peruvians interrogating my ancestry. In Latin America, Europeanness is celebrated more than Blackness and Indigeneity is. I ask Domínguez, in Latin America who is likely to be discriminated against: the one with a Spanish last name or one that is of a native tongue? I can answer this question. My own great-grandmother was forced to adjust her Quechuan last name to appear French, an effort to escape the same discrimination Domínguez correctly claims Latinos in the U.S. face but in her very own home.

Let us delve a bit further at Peru, a nation where the majority of people are non-white. According to Alerta Contra El Racismo en Perú, an initiative created by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, on the question of whether Quechuas and Aymaras, Afro-Peruvians, and Amazonians are targets of racism, the majority agreed at 59%, 60%, and 57% respectively. In the 2017 National Survey “Perceptions and Attitudes on Cultural Diversity and Ethnic-Racial Discrimination,” Peruvians attributed public hospitals and police stations as the top institutions where discrimination is experienced. In addition, 81% answered yes to “discrimination happens all the time [in Peru].” But interestingly enough, Peru was the first country to apologize for its treatment to its Black population and the first nation in the Americas to recognize an indigenous language.

Latinos Complicit in White Violence

Latin Americans participating in white supremacy and genocide of their own compatriots is not novel nor unique to “Latinos 4 Trump.” Was Augusto Pinochet not a Latino? Or Rafael Trujillo? Juan Orlando Hernández? Iván Duque? Of course they are Latinos and they are all white, but they are also dictators complicit in rampant violence against our people in the interests of their own capital. Much like those Latinos who assimilate, perhaps pathetically, into whiteness in the Global North, they are interested in their own class position, which is inextricably linked from racial politics.

Domínguez’s piece does raise interesting points—the absolute disgrace of those Latinos who sell out their own people in favor of a higher status in the U.S. And this is not a point exclusively for light-skinned Latinos, but also for Brown, Indigenous, even Afro-Latinos in the U.S. National and ethnic solidarity is abandoned in favor of class supremacy, and this has long been the case since the Europeans invaded the Americas. But this does not erase the existence of white Latinos nor the centuries of violence white supremacy has sewn. While in no way I am suggesting Domínguez intended this, the claim that “white Latinos don’t exist” gaslights the trauma extended over our people for centuries, it excuses the racism experienced today in our own nations, the social otherization of native people on their very own lands.

If we are ever to unite our people all throughout the Americas and push for the institutionalization of anti-racism, then we must come honestly to the brutal history that has created Latinidad.

The wars of independence of Latin America were waged in the 19th century, but true
liberation has yet to come. People all throughout the Americas must abolish the remnants of
colonialism, only then can we be free, only then can we put to rest what divides us and struggle for our mutual benefit.


Kayla Popuchet Quesada is a Peruvian-New York raised student, worker and anti-imperialist writer. Twitter: @kaylapop_