When I first learned of the Trayvon Martin case, and saw George Zimmerman’s mug shot, it never crossed my mind that I was looking at a “white” man. I saw a face like my own staring back at me: Latino, of mixed heritage, just light enough to pass as white to someone who hasn’t spend a lifetime surrounded by mixed friends and family. What seemed obvious to me was perplexingly absent from the initial coverage characterizing Zimmerman simply as a bigoted white man. The reality was clearly more complicated.
Then, another, more troubling trend emerged: the backlash (mostly by white right-wing pundits) claiming that, because Zimmerman had some sort of Latino heritage, the attack wasn’t racist. As the story has developed, a clearer picture of Zimmerman has formed: he speaks Spanish and English, and has a white American father and a Peruvian mother. Apparently, having one minority parent absolves the child from any potential charges of prejudice. (At least, if you ask the Zimmerman family.)
Is “Latino” a Race?
The media coverage has made it clear that, as a society, we still aren’t clear on how to describe mixed-race individuals – especially Latinos. I’ve seen Zimmerman described as “white and Hispanic” (presumably a nod to his parents), “Latino,” “white Hispanic,” and some even stranger terminology. Some even contest a description of Zimmerman as anything but white, saying, “Hispanic is not a race.”
This is true, technically speaking. There are white people in Latin America – the descendants of the original European colonists from Spain and Portugal. There are some descendants of black slaves, especially in the Caribbean. There are also many, many people descended from the local indigenous cultures. When the US was settled, my European ancestors drove the natives from their land, leaving the many cultures they encountered devastated and dwindling. In Latin America, my ancestors were not necessarily better people. Colonization was still a brutal process that left many dead and attempted to destroy the local culture, religion, and customs.
But in Latin America, the natives weren’t driven from their homes. They were converted to Christianity, taught Spanish, and integrated into the society of the colonizers. The Spanish men married native women and had mixed children. In many countries, a complex hierarchy of racial categories rose up in response, with the first-generation Spanish emigrants on top, creoles (Spaniards born in America) below that, mestizos (those of mixed heritage) in the middle, and the natives and blacks at the bottom. Generations of intermarriage and racial mixing have made Latino identity complicated. Within Latin America, there is pervasive racism against blacks, natives, and mestizos with less European blood.
But most people in Latin America are anything but “white.” Racial relations south of the border tend to be messy and complicated due to the level of racial mixing. And because of the racial caste system in Mexico and elsewhere, most of the poor and disenfranchised have mostly-native backgrounds. These are the people desperate to immigrate to America for better opportunities. Most Latinos in the US cannot be accurately described as “white,” although most of us do have a healthy amount of European ancestry.
So: are Latinos a race, an ethnicity, or a culture? I’d argue a little of all three. Many Latinos who have been in the country for several generations don’t speak Spanish or have a meaningful connection to Latin American culture. But many of these people have visible and obvious indigenous heritage – short stature, brown skin, straight dark hair, brown eyes.† Categorically declaring these people “white” – as many people and organizations, including the US government, do – does a disservice to them, effectively erasing the racism based on physical appearance that many Latinos face in the US. Even those of mixed heritage, those who may not appear on first glance to be obviously Latino, like George Zimmerman.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr
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