When the story broke that George Zimmerman used his 2005 MySpace page to spread derogatory stereotypes about Mexicans, the response from major newspapers and cable news was underwhelming.
After all, Zimmerman—the 28 year-old, half Peruvian, self-appointed captain of an unregistered Neighborhood Watch, awaiting trial for the second-degree murder of 17 year-old, African American youth Trayvon Martin—looked upon a pedestrian returning home from a corner store. Not as a fellow human being or a fellow law-abiding citizen, but through a lens of American racism that paints all people of color as worthy of suspicion.
Yet, when he posted disparaging generalizations about Mexicans on MySpace – despite his skin color, mestizo heritage and answers to Census questions about race and ethnicity – Zimmerman proved that he views the world through a lens of Latin American racism as well.
Many non-Latinos have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion of a Latino being racist toward another person of color. Yet, it is precisely at the intersection of this nation’s tradition of the “one drop rule,” and the anomalic history of nationalist identity throughout Latin American and the Caribbean that Latino notions of racial identity reside.
Latinos are a multiracial, multicultural populace who share a long history of marginalization with communities of color impacted by school segregation, redlining policies, police profiling, denial of due process, and other forms of de jure and de facto discrimination. Yet, despite Mendez v. Westminster, Hernandez v. Texas, the history of Jim Crow laws targeting Latinos, including veterans, and the Civil Rights Era movements to deliver social, educational, economic, and political justice to urban and rural Latinos, Congress didn’t order the US Census to collect data on “Hispanics” until 1976.
When it first asked all Americans to self-identify as an “ethnicity,” and a “race” (in 1980) Latinos entered into the never-ending process of explaining why we’ll never be able to replace our many identities with a homogenous racial one.
As Ilan Stavans writes in the Daily Beast: “People like purity. They also enjoy using easy identity categories, especially if they can be differentiated from each other … He is a sum of hodgepodge parts: Jewish, Catholic, white, and Peruvian … That accumulation of identities is already a sine qua non when speaking of Hispanics, like Zimmerman. Most Latinos are a mix. That’s why the term mestizaje is ubiquitous in Latin America: it not only denotes those who had Spanish as well as indigenous parents, but describes a complex process of racial commingling … We’re obsessed with genealogy precisely because our roots have tangled, and mingled. Zimmerman is a Latino precisely because his identity is mixed together, watered down.”
When I went to school in Mexico, federally established curriculum mandated that all children study two texts addressing the origins of our identity: La Raza Cósmica, (The Cosmic Race) an essay written by José Vasconcelos Calderón, and La Raza de Bronce, (The Bronze Race) a poem by Amado Nervo (a.k.a., Juan Crisóstomo Ruiz de Nervo). From Vasconcelos, we were to learn that we were a new “fifth race” of mestizos. One created not by explicitly blending together the indigenous people of the Americas, with the peoples of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but one that came into existence by concurrently not being these things, while extracting the essence of their greatness.
From Nervo, we were to learn the story of Benito Juarez, the self-made man, born in a tiny adobe home in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He became a successful lawyer, resisted the French occupation of Mexico, overthrew the Napoleonic Empire, and used liberal efforts to modernize the country, while serving five times as President of the Mexican Republic.
In Mexico City schools, I was taught there were no White Mexicans, Black Mexicans, Brown Mexicans, and so forth – only mestizos. Other countries (like the United States) were racist because they lacked the mestizaje that gave us social cohesion. By deifying Benito Juarez, a dark skinned man with pronounced indigenous facial features, my teachers were attempting to inculcate me into the propagandist fiction that discrimination on the basis of racial appearance did not exist in Mexico.
Yet racism was everywhere.
Television and film screens, magazine covers, billboards, people walking down the street, sang the praises of the fair skin, light-eyes, and European features. The “güero” aesthetic was better than the “moreno” or “prieto” alternative. When people complained about how hard their bosses were working them, they’d call them “negreros.” I never once witnessed anyone with White skin being called a “naco.” And there could be no greater insult rendered than calling someone an “indio.”
Mexico is not alone in seeking a path forward from a troubled racial past through the creation of a nationalist propaganda that seeks to join its diverse people in one new harmonious race. Revisionist narratives of mestizaje (or mestiçagem) have influenced every Spanish-speaking Latin American country, and Portuguese-speaking Brazil as well.
Yet, it is the very real and painful history of slavery and genocide throughout the Americas, followed by relentless efforts to minimize the damage of these histories through a propagandist narrative of a “rainbow” past. It magically molds them into a common, cohesive, social present that makes the real work of unpacking privilege and confronting racist power structures so amazingly difficult.
In September of 2009, CNN painted a picture of what it means to be Latino in America by introducing us to Bill and Betty Garcia, as well as their two teenage sons, Andrew and Brian. Bill is Puerto Rican, and Betty is Dominican. They live in Charlotte, NC. Mr. and Mrs. Garcia tell Soledad O’Brien they fear their children have lost touch with their cultural identity. On camera, the teens are asked, “What do you say you are?” 17 year-old Brian responds, “I tell them I’m Hispanic. But I mean… Most of my friends are Black… In the south it’s either you’re White, Black, or you’re Mexican. I don’t like being called Mexican.”
Latinos are blessed with the richness and complexity of many cultures, but we are equally cursed with the racial baggage of two juxtaposed worlds: One in which one drop of non-European blood makes someone “the Other.” And another in which any sign of European heritage makes a person of color, White.
Given this context, although it pisses off conservative pundits to no end, the New York Times got it right when they called Zimmerman a “White Hispanic,” for that is what he likely sees when he looks in the mirror.