Yes: Latinos Can Be Racist, Too

Yes: Latinos Can Be Racist, Too


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.


  1. Very, very well said. My dad is black Dominican and my mom was a very white Dominican and both the families regularly joked about (in a serious way) my mom marrying down and my dad marrying up. My grandmother on my dad's side hated my mother but was SO happy my dad married someone who gave her "white" grandchildren. When I lived in the DR, from the time i was five 'till I was about 13, all the tias in the neighborhood called me rubia, some in a nice way, others not so much. when I was in college at Simmons in Boston, many of the Dominican girls, especially the ones from MA, could not stand me and called me a 'fake' latina, all because of the color of my skin. When my mother heard I was going to spend a summer in Spain, she begged me to adopt the mother land's accent. It would make me much more sophisticated. Things have gotten better…We latinos live in an incredible melting pot of cultures that now days accepts each other but with exceptions…such as what you describe above. It is both fascinating and infuriating to watch the culture / race / class wars that go on within the HispanicLatino community. Ultimately, we are who we are but we are not helping ourselves, especially during a time when xinophobic americans have mounted an all out attack latinos in the us. It would be better for all of us to just get over it and get along. But I don't see that happening any time soon.

  2. Yes, Latinos can be racist. But to be racist you have to make a comment on race. This whole diatribe is foolish. Mexican is not a race. You cannot be racist against Mexicans. You can be racist against Mestizos, or Indigenous people. You can be xenophobic about Mexicans. There is no evidence that Zimmerman did either. It sounds like an urban youth who just used the term Mexicans to refer to Mexican hoodlums who were committing crimes in his area. Did he mean to refer to all Mexicans in general? We really don't know. We would need more context, in other communications, recollections of Zimmerman.

    Another issue is class association. Latinos will tend to congregate with each other over other nationalities/ethnicities. But class and culture plays a big role as well. Urban youth might not feel as connected to country folk/cowboy/ranchero culture and vice versa. Similarly, middle to upper class, and/or educated Latinos might not feel any affiliation with lower class and/or uneducated populations.

    If a person comes from a more diverse, educated background, they may not feel much connection to populations of migrants that they see as less educated, or with less cultural formation than themselves. I have seen this in many Latinos of multiple backgrounds, including educated Mexicans, who look down on their less educated counterparts.

    In this case, I think that Zimmerman, as an urban youth just doesn't identify with the immigrant day laborers, and definitely not by the criminal element. Mexicans are the largest Latino population in Manassas, so they probably are the most visible.

    I don't see this as racist commentary at all, just an attitude with some of the local Mexicans in his population. Could be some classism, and xenophobia involved. Not enough information, but definitely not racism.

  3. I see Mr. Zimmerman as a pretty stupid person who doesn't know what he is. George let me make it easier for you. Just call yourself stupid and be done with it. Can someone explain to me, a Mexican .american-Chicano why other Latinos go bananas when they are referred to as Mexican, as in" I am not Mexican I am Cuban"? "Anything but Mexican" anyone?

    • YOU have a problem with another Latino saying “I am not Mexican I am Cuban”?

      They want to be identified by their true racial, ethnic, cultural identity. Nothing wrong with wanting to clarify and assert that.

      What your thing really is is that you don’t like it when other Latino’s say they aren’t Mexican because you’d certainly like, you and all your Chicano movement people for ALL Latino’s to not say anything when they are confused or assumed for being Mexican.

      It threatens your political gains and agenda for your Mexican ONLY Chicano movements.

      And worse and more accurate is that YOU Mexicans discriminate and also get even more offended when people think you’re Central American.

      Hypocrites, that’s what Mexicans are and always will be.

      The rest of us Latino’s will push forward and make sure we preserve and protect our cultural identities. We don’t share much other than Spanish and even THEN we have different dialects in the Latino world.

  4. Yes, Latinos can be racist. But to be racist you have to make a comment on race. This whole diatribe is foolish. Mexican is not a race. You cannot be racist against Mexicans. You can be racist against Mestizos, or Indigenous people. You can be xenophobic about Mexicans. There is no evidence that Zimmerman did either. It sounds like an urban youth who just used the term Mexicans to refer to Mexican hoodlums who were committing crimes in his area. Did he mean to refer to all Mexicans in general? We really don't know. We would need more context, in other communications, recollections of Zimmerman.

    Also to consider is that Crime rates vary by region and group. For example, in Manassas, Mexicans might be the more criminal group, but in Patterson, NJ, we peruvians have the worse reputation.

  5. Racism is still wide spread, and skin tone variation discrimination common in all races, but I think Zimmerman's comments have another source. Young men travel thousands of miles from their homes, families, and friends in Mexico to find work in the US. Conditions are hard for them, with people of all races trying to exploit them. Many speak little or no English, and find it very difficult to enjoy many of the recreations like movies etc. that require require knowledge of the language.

    Young men away from home and bored very often end up drinking. Not a Mexican issue, pretty much all young men away from home fail to resist the temptation of alcohol, whether its going to college, serving in the military, or just looking for work. Sometimes this leads to getting into trouble, usually minor, and its something most towns with any population of bored young men learns to live with, but may harbor some animosity toward. As long as that animosity is limited to comments on a web page, whats the real harm?

  6. Mexicans are one the biggest hypocrites on the planet.

    They hide behind saying that their almost racist discrimination, ethnic discrimination, cultural discrimination, ethnic SLURS, etc. etc. ARE NOT Racist because they are not a “race”… yet they and excuse my grammar but Im in a hurry here, Mexicans have serious ethnic (racial) issues with Central Americans.

    They have ethnic slur terms for Salvadorians that you can make a long list out of and treat other Latino’s as inferior. They hoard jobs in the USA marginalizing other Latino’s and tend to always act as if they represent ALL of Latin America when they don’t even consider themselves Latino but… MEXICAN.

    Mexico has committed atrocities towards Central Americans, treated them like the worst, when going through the USA to reach their dreams. Human rights violations to ugly and long to discuss here.

    YET, they have the massive cultural temerity to complain about racism, racial profiling and discrimination when they DO WORSE IN mexica and IN the USA.

    Hypocrites. Hypocrites.