Tu Latinidad y la Mia: Discourses on Umbrella Terms and Identity
Winner, Crow Writing Contest, 2021
By Penélope Hurtado Stuart, University of Arizona
Penélope Hurtado Stuart is an undergraduate student from San Antonio, Texas majoring in neuroscience and cognitive science, linguistics, and Arabic at the University of Arizona. She is also a neurolinguistic researcher and a baile folklorico dancer, and works in arts and science education in her spare time. As a Mexican-American woman of mixed ancestry, exploring the intersections of identity and experience is deeply important to her.
Hispanic. Latino. Latinx.
These ethnic labels have been applied by the Census Bureau and other United States governmental bodies for decades to refer to those of Central American, South American, and Caribbean descent, regardless of race. While Americans have come to conceptualize those identified under these umbrella terms as a monolithic racial category, the Hispanic and Latino labels encompass a plethora of diverse, unique cultures and people of varied racial, linguistic, political, and religious backgrounds. While there are many benefits to Latinx and Hispanic unity, particularly in the interest of securing power within a nation in which minorities are often at a stark disadvantage, it is also important to note that the daily realities faced by Latinos of different backgrounds are incredibly diverse. In order to combat the problems of colorism, racism, and classism within Hispanic communities, and in order to acknowledge the multifaceted thoughts, opinions, and perspectives of Latinx individuals coming from different national origins (in lieu of treating Latinos as a monolith when describing the “Hispanic voter” or discussing the increase in the “Latino population” of the United States), it is important to acknowledge and understand the multifaceted nature of Latino identity.
In this counterstory, a group of women grapples with the question of how labels serve (and harm) the Latino communities and discuss how to address the different frameworks from which each woman conducts her life.
Joanna sits by the Riverwalk in a lime-green tank top, the sun hitting her tan shoulders. Upon her head is a halo of paper flowers, strewn with brightly-colored ribbons, and in her hand is a raspado con lucas, melting from the Texas heat. To her left a local folklorico group is performing — she thinks it must be a high school group — their faldas flashing in a sea of oranges and teals and pinks. They are performing a song from Jalisco — perhaps it is Son de La Negra or Sihualteco — as they prepare for a parade. In San Antonio, Texas, it is Fiesta Week, a yearly spring celebration, and everyone in the city is excited. Joanna licks the sticky, sweet residue off of her fingers and stands. She needs to meet up with her organizations to check up on their parade floats.
Joanna is third-generation Mexican-American. To her, the concept of Latinidad is painted from the brush of her experiences as a Tejana. She knows every lyric to every Selena song, (though, much like Selena and countless other Tejanos, she did not learn Spanish until adulthood) she volunteers her skills as a law student working at local organizations to support immigrant youth, and spends her spare time volunteering at the local museums for Tejano art.
Joanna returns to the large, bright-pink float. It is here that she is supposed to meet with her organization- a large networking group for Latinx women from across the United States working in academia. Its members are not all locals from San Antonio like her, but instead encompass a diverse group, coming from all corners of the United States. The band includes Xochitl the Arizonan, Maria from Florida, Yolanda from New York City, Isabella from Illinois, Adriana from Georgia, and Luz from California, among others.
Luz turns to Joanna and smiles. “Hola, huera, ¿qué onda?”
Joanna smiles, a mumbled “bien, ¿y tu?” released from underneath her breath. Something about Luz and Xochitl always left her particularly insecure about her broken Spanish in a way that she could not fully describe.
As she enters upon the circle, meekly making her way to the side, Joanna picks up pieces of chatter.
Yolanda, a young, Black, Puerto Rican woman, is standing in the corner looking at her surroundings, an expression of disgust upon her face. “I don’t understand why people get so excited about festivals like this. I mean, tee shirts with Frida Kahlo, pins with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos… it feels so capitalist. So gentrified. It’s not for Latinos, it’s for white populations- or for Mestizos and white Latinos who know nothing of La Cultura and continue to discuss “La Raza” as if the concept were not invented by a Nazi. It’s all just so kitschy!”
Isabella, a light-skinned girl of Spanish descent with blue eyes and brown hair, turns to Yolanda. “I don’t understand, do we not want people to enjoy our shared culture? There is more to Latinidad than just tradition. Our new shared experiences may draw from consumerism, yes, but that is but a side effect of the society in which we must all live. I know nothing about Arab culture, but my Syran friend invited me for Ramadan last summer. Although I am a Catholic, the experience helped me gain a more positive view of Islam and to become acquantied with a number of little cultural references and phrase used in Arabic that I wasn’t aware of before. I know that this made a difference in my life. Likewise, in my city we have a Lunar New Year festival each year. It’s a bit commercial, but I have learned about Chinese culture through the festival every time that I have attended. I think that the sugar skulls and the papel picado and the raspados and the banda music… it has to be doing something to legitimize our culture (if even only at a material level) to populations who might not have that kind of access to our culture and who might want to learn.”
Luz shrugs her shoulders. A migrant from Oaxaca, she is short, with stick-straight black hair. “It’s for hueros, yes, not for real Mexicans.” She says. “But it doesn’t really bother me or anything. I don’t really mind seeing other people enjoy our culture, so long as they are being respectful. I have a lot going on. I don’t exactly have time to worry about identity politics.”
“But is not identity our main struggle, as minorities in a majority-white society?” asks Isabella, earnestly.
“Not at all!” exclaims Adriana. “We’re facing voter suppression, we’re facing mass incarceration. The specificities of our identities are the least of our concerns. My family did not flee from Chile to explore our identities, but to survive. It is interesting to hear this opinion from you, as a white Latina.”
“Is that not an oxymoron?” Asks Isabella. “To be both white and Latina?”
“You can be both.” Says Yolanda. “Although, everyone here, with the exception of me, Xochitl, and Luz, are white Latinos.”
Shaking her head, Xochitl turns back to Yolanda. “That is objectively untrue.” She said. “While Isabella is a white Hispanic, the others are mestizos. The mestizo experience in the United States is different.”
Yolanda sighs, pulling out her small notebook, for she is a student and a thinker, and spends much of her time reading scholarship on Black American identities. “Mestizaje racial ideologies that emerge in Latin America and are brought into the United States and the limited visibility of Afro-Latinos in both places makes race difficult to talk about in the Latino community, puts forth certain phenotypes as ‘Latino’ and leads to Afro-Latinos being categorized by their looks as Black, thereby automatically excluding them from Latinidad.” she says. “Words from Vianny Jasmin Nolacso.”
“Exactly. Like, do mestizos not benefit from white privilege?” asks Adriana.
Joanna looks around herself towards the other Tejanos passing by in the surrounding area. “We do benefit from colorism, and we do benefit from anti-Blackness,” she says. “But by virtue of our indigenous features and recognizably Latinx appearance, we are perceived as minorities in the United States. In the eye of white people, we are all the same.”
“But we are not the same! Are not Latinx of lighter complexion less likely to be stopped by law enforcement or border patrol? Isn’t it easier for white passing Latinx to get hired or admitted to a university?” Asks Adriana.
“Absolutely.” Joanna nods. “But I find the term “Mestizo,” which was invented by Spanish settlers to systematically oppress indigenous and mixed people, to be a bit problematic. The emphasis on blood quantum doesn’t sit right with me. Our people were raped and colonized, so the presence of Hispanic ancestry in our communities should not be used to discredit and erase our Indigenous heritage. I mean, look at the history of the term! It goes back to a Spanish caste system based in scientific racism. I highly suggest reading up on eighteenth century casta paintings, which had a huge influence on how Latinx talk about race- I think that Khan Academy should have a page on them. They demonstrate just how ugly and, frankly, violent the entire concept is.”
“This is true, but Mestizos and mixed people don’t seem to understand that we face daily violence from lighter-skinned and mixed people as migrants and as Black and Indigenous individuals. In addition, we are disproportionately represented in the prison system and underrepresented in education.” Yolanda states.
“This is the case,” argued Isabella, “but this can be avoided through legal migration. My parents came into this country legally. My family worked hard to start a business. My parents worked at their restaurant, producing for their new community. If others did the same, they would not experience the same problems. Instead, you have more and more lazy individuals coming into this country expecting handouts.”
“Isabella, that is anti-Blackness and honestly quite hateful. This is a case in which your white privilege is showing,” says Luz, shaking her head. “It hurts me to see you say that, because although among our circle you appear whiter by virtue of your accent and skin tone, I don’t believe that you will truly ever be accepted by white America, as much as you aspire to whiteness. You speak of laziness, but I think you gravely misunderstand the reasons for which people enter into this nation in the first place. Take me for example. I am undocumented. My sister is as well. She was a teen mother, and is now a student. I worked hard to get my degree. It is difficult for my sister and I to access healthcare or many of our most basic needs, but we still contrive so much to society. We came here for a better life, and we have learned so much. I am successful in my career, and I consider myself to be an intellectual. Back in Mexico, we had no economic prospects and lived in fear of violence every day. Here in the United States, we have the safety and freedom that we need to be productive and happy and live a fulfilling life. I understand that your family came from Cuba for political reasons. I recently read this research paper all about the proclivity for Cuban Americans to vote Republican, which even stated that ‘staunch anti-Castro republicans are not being replaced’ within the Cuban community, and so I acknowledge the political and cultural history which guided you to your opinion. Nonetheless, you have to understand that other people came here for different reasons, and will continue to do what it takes to keep their families safe, as is human nature. As I understand it, there is a great deal of anti-Blackness in the Cuban community, as there is in the Mexican community as well. In the words of an article which I have read from Harvard Politics, ‘In many White-passing Latinx communities of Miami, anti-Black sentiments persist. This is true of more recent Cuban immigrants, who, according to Bustamante, are some of the most vocal in using extreme rhetoric against Black Lives Matter and the surrounding protests.’ I think that this may be something that you want to examine.”
“Indeed. That is what these people here in San Antonio will never understand. They know ‘Mexicanness,’ so to speak, through these little cultural festivals, through food and occasionally through language. But they do not know the struggle of the immigrant, and cannot possibly relate to genuine Mexican culture,” Xochitl adds.
“I agree, but I will admit that Tejano culture is unique! As a Chicana you probably understand that. Things are different for Californians too,” adds Yolanda. “It does frustrate me, but I am starting to think that maybe the comparison between Tejano and Mexican culture is irrelevant.”
“Precisely,” Joanna adds. “Our land used to be part of Mexico, so most of our families have lived here since long before any generation can remember. We have faced systematic oppression in a very unique way. In the 1950s, Tejanos were subject to Jim Crow laws and segregation, as described by the TSHA article , unjust labor practices, scientific racism, you name it! Then during the Vietman war, Tejanos were disproportionately drafted because we were seen as disposable. Now, we face higher incarceration rates and we still experience the effects of district zoning and gerrymandering. We may not have the same accent, the same music, the same cultural norms, but we are our distinct culture which is absolutely treated as second-class by white Americans. I think it is interesting because, I do feel that I have so much to learn about Mexican culture- in fact my younger siblings have never even been to Mexico! But we are our own thing, extraneous to white America.”
“But San Antonians, Tejanos, they hardly speak Spanish at all!”, adds Adriana.
Joanna shrugs. “That’s pretty common. We’ve historically been conditioned to speak English or we could be punished within schools. This actually happened to my abuelos, which is why they decided to speak exclusively English to my parents. Although times are changing, and my abuelos even speak in Spanish to my baby cousins now, back in previous decades the use of English was used as a tool for survival. My mom always tells me about how her English is so perfectly. Hollywood-sounding because her parents discouraged her from having an accent. She noticed she was treated differently by teachers the more white her voice presented, and it stuck with her. Even now, I watch my mom use a completely different set of vowels when around my abuelos than what she uses at home. But then with doctors, police, any kind of authority figure, her voice takes on a more proper form. It’s all about code switching. I remember reading a Washington Post article once — which, mind you, I cannot recommend enough if you truly want to understand my background — anyways it was talking about Julian Castro, who is also from San Antonio, and how much criticism he garnered from the Latinx community and the nation in general for his lack of Spanish fluency. I think he stated that ‘It just became the routine to speak English, and that was due in no small measure to the fact that Spanish had been looked down upon… (and) a lot of that oppression was internalized.’”
Xochitl nods. “That makes sense. Although you can blend in. I could never do so, as a morena. Even without the factor of language, Tejanos usually have some color privilege that I never will.”
Adriana laughs. “And even in Arizona you probably blend in better as a Mexican than I do as a Chilean anywhere. There is so much Mexican culture in the United States. I can barely find a good Chilean restaurant anywhere! I have to make all my paila marina by myself. I feel so erased in everything from political campaigns to the media!”
Upon hearing this, it dawns upon Joanna, “Perhaps we need to ditch Latinidad. It seems that we are so diverse that one label doesn’t really serve us.”
Yolanda nods in agreement. “I think so! I am a Black woman in America facing the vestiges of slavery, segregation, and other systemic antiblackness every day. In the words of Yvette Modestine as quoted in an article I once read from Remezcla, ‘Latinidad leans on whiteness and creates even a white supremacist tone in the use of it,’ she says. ‘As Black as I am, and as proudly Black identified as I am, and as proudly Black Panamanian as I am, it serves me nothing.’ I relate to this quote, as I do not think that the rest of you can ever fully understand my experience, or what it is like to inhabit a Black body.”
“And WE are capable of antiblackness. My mom always wants me to marry a white man, or at least a lightskinned one.” Adds Isabella. “Much like our Floridian friend, she is also anti-immigrant, although her parents, (my abuelos) are themselves immigrants too.”
“As for me,” adds Luz, “I feel far more connected with my indigenous roots than with Mexican nationalism. But the same is not true even within my hometown back in Mexico, where there are many Mestizo inhabitants.”
Perhaps, realizes Joanna, there is less in common between Latinos than she had previously thought. But that is beautiful! It occurs to Joanna that there is work left to be done, leaving her with mission — to discover how Latinos can help one another understand their diverse identities.
It is time to move past the concept of La Raza. For, as explained in this Seattle Times article, the notion contributes to Indigenous erasure. Nonetheless, much as diverse African and Asian cultures have been similarly grouped together in the American perspective through colonization, Latinos continue to be treated as a monolith by systems both legal and cultural in the United states. It is up to us, then, to decide how to approach this cultural dilemma going into the future.
““Y Yo No Me Voy A Quedar Callado”: Anti-Blackness And Colorism In Miami’S Latinx Community – Harvard Political Review”. Harvard Political Review, 2021, https://harvardpolitics.com/anti-blackness-miami-latinx/.
Nolasco, V. J. (2020). Doing Latinidad While Black: Afro-Latino Identity and Belonging. Theses and Dissertations Retrieved from https://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/3713. Accessed 6 April, 2021.
“TSHA | Segregation”. Tshaonline.Org, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/segregation.. Accessed March 30, 2021.
“Casta Paintings: Spaniard And Indian Produce A Mestizo (Article) | Khan Academy”. Khan Academy, 2021, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/colonial-americas/a/spaniard-and-indian-produce-a-mestizo-attributed-to-juan-rodriguez#:~:text=Casta%20paintings%20are%20often%20labeled,akin%20to%20a%20scientific%20taxonomy. Accessed 7 April, 2021.
Martinez, Janel, and Felipe Maia. “When It Comes To Latinidad, Who Is Included And Who Isn’t?”. Remezcla, 2021, https://remezcla.com/features/culture/when-it-comes-to-latinidad-who-is-included-and-who-isnt/.
Contreras, R. (2017, July 12). AP explains: Why term ‘la Raza’ has complicated roots in US. Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/ap-explains-term-la-raza-has-complicated-roots-in-us/
Bishin, Benjamin G., and Casey A. Klofstad. “The Political Incorporation of Cuban Americans: Why Won’t Little Havana Turn Blue?” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 3, 2012, pp. 586–599. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41635257. Accessed 15 Apr. 2021.
Schmidt, S. (2019, July 30). ‘Why don’t you SPEAK SPANISH?’: For Julián Castro and millions of latinos, the answer is not so simple. Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/why-dont-you-speak-spanish-for-julian-castro-and-millions-of-latinos-the-answer-is-not-so-simple/2019/07/14/681c13c6-a4c6-11e9-bd56-eac6bb02d01d_story.html
Photographer unknown. FordMariachiFestivaljpg. Fiesta San Antonio,nhttps://fiestasanantonio.org/events/ford-mariachi-festival/. Accessed April 25, 2021.
Adriana Gutierrez. Miztontli Dancers Photo. January 23, 2021.The University of Arizona. Accessed April 25, 2021
Carol Rossetti. Maira. The Women Project, copyright 2019. https://www.carolrossetti.com.br/women. Accessed April 24, 2021.
Copyright © 2021 Penélope Hurtado Stuart. Published with permission.