SAN DIEGO — When I was a kid, I remember watching cheesy talk shows that had random but controversial guests who we were pure cringe. Geraldo, Sally, Springer—yes, I’m old.
I remember one show that invited white supremacists who ranted about Black people and immigrants. One of the racists was Puerto Rican.
I was a young Chicano in Los Angeles who, aside from my one Nuyorican friend, only knew about Puerto Ricans from movies. I thought to myself: “Aren’t Boricuas just like us? How could this person be a white supremacist?!”
That weird, racist guest who identified herself as a white Puerto Rican still lives rent-free in my mind because it took so many years for me to work it all out.
Most Latinos grow up with at least a vague sense of the colorized caste system Europeans imposed on our cultures and countries—I include the U.S.A. here—where white Latinos are at the top of the food chain and the Indigenous and Black people are at the bottom. The strength of the caste system varies from place to place and ranges from family members joking about a darker relative’s skin color, on the one hand, all the way to blatant discrimination and genocide.
After 500-plus years, racism is not normally that intense in most places, but it rears its ugly head wherever we feel like we are in competition with other minorities. I saw this throughout my upbringing in Southern California at the height of the crack epidemic and the many years I spent in southeast Chicago as an adult, years after the steel mills had closed down and taken the region’s economic prosperity with them. In such places, the hatred was palpable, and fear often went both ways, though I only speak as a Chicano here.
This bonkers racial framework leads to bizarre outcomes:
- Indigenous Mexicans, often darker than the Black folks they are referring to, complaining about those “morenos,” translated roughly as “darkies”
- Indigenous and Black Latinos identifying as white rather than Indigenous or Black. It gets really weird when you hear visibly Black Dominicans hating on Haitians, even referring to them as “the Blacks”
- White Latinos in the United States appropriating spaces that were won by the blood, sweat, and tears of Black and Indigenous Latinos, their white privilege getting them into power conversations that the rest of us would otherwise be shut out of. To be fair, many of them use this power for good, but so do many other white people. Ethnicity and race are different things.
I could go on…
When one is young, it’s difficult to see beyond these inherited frameworks. There is a lot of deprogramming to be done.
But at some point, any rational person sees these prejudices for what they are: evil ideas that were laid down by evil empires during evil times yet still hold the power to keep us non-whites divided and conquered.
Nury Martínez and everyone else on that tape should have known better than to denigrate Black people and the Indigenous people of Oaxaca. And as leaders, they needed to be better, especially in L.A., where unity among Blacks and Mexicans is not a default condition.
Rey López-Calderón is a consultant and strategic advisor to the Seattle-based democracy organization, More Equitable Democracy. He studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and holds a JD from DePaul College of Law. When he is not working, he enjoys spending time with his husband and three toy fox terriers in the San Diego-Tijuana area. Twitter: @reylc