George Zimmerman has finally been arrested. But is it too little too late? Perhaps, but it is important that those who follow this case not get confused by the assertions that Zimmerman could not be racist because he is “Hispanic.” What has been missing from the discussion thus far is an analysis of race and racism in the countries of Central and South America, and how Spanish-speaking immigrants (and/or their American-born children) can harbor cultural baggage that includes their own brand of racism rooted in slavery and the subsequent disenfranchisement of people of African origins who reside in the countries of Latin America. Fortunately, my fellow writer for Insight, Alberto Barrows, an Afro-Panamanian and an attorney, has given us a first-hand analysis of what the cultural baggage of racism looks like up close and personal in Central and South America-- http://www.insightnews.com/news/8786-afortunadamente-aca-no-los-matan#.T4l6VByeOqU.email
Overlay this history of a Latin-American formulated racism (racismo) towards Afrodescendientes (people of African descent) with the United States’ history of racism towards Blacks, and we have a collision waiting to happen.
George Zimmerman does not get the pass card on racism because he is “Hispanic,” for the simple reason that many light/white-skinned (blanquitos/as) people with origins in Central and South America have been socialized in their own histories and cultures to regard los negroes (Blacks) as less than themselves. First we must understand that the term Hispanic is an invention of the U.S. Census. It references a large group of people from different countries of origins who share a similar language—Spanish.
Who or What is Hispanic?
Hispanic first came into usage in the 1970s census, and was an attempt by the U.S. government to account for the increasing population of Spanish-speaking immigrants. In applying the term, the U.S. government simply homogenized all Spanish-speaking people (native-born and immigrants) into one monolithic group. According to the description taken from the U.S. census website, Hispanic or Latino is an ethnicity and not a racial category. Thus, the term attempts to reference cultural (primarily language) similarities, rather than supposedly biological similarities. This is how the U.S. Census website describes it:
“Persons of Hispanic origin were identified by a question that asked for self-identification of the person's origin or descent. Respondents were asked to select their origin (and the origin of other household members) from a "flash card" listing ethnic origins. Persons of Hispanic origin, in particular, were those who indicated that their origin was Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or some other Hispanic origin. It should be noted that persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race.”
However one defines the term, its usage and application to such a diverse group of peoples, cultures, and countries is wrong and misleading. Are Brazilians, who speak Portuguese, included in Hispanic? What should they mark on the census? Outside of the island of Hispaniola, where the country of Haiti resides on one side and the Dominican Republic on the other, there is no Hispanic culture, ethnicity, language, or people. And while there are commonalities in the Latin-based lingua franca of Spanish that is the national language of countries in Central and South America, if you have ever had any conversations in Spanish with a Cuban, Puerto Rican, or a Dominican, you will realize immediately that the Castilian Spanish you learned in high school Spanish classes, based on how people speak in Spain, may be of little value to you. The main difference is accent, although there are some differences of vocabulary and grammar usage.
What the term Hispanic also disguises is the reality that in most of the countries of Central and South America, the majority population is comprised of indigenous people who speak their own languages and dialects that bear no relationship to Spanish. A few learn Spanish, which creates some access to employment and education, but for the most part, they are isolated in rural villages with few resources. In countries such as Guatemala, they have been the victims of ethnocide (a systematic attempt by government to eliminate Maya peoples and cultures). And along the coast of many of these Spanish-speaking countries, where slave ships often harbored or were ship wrecked, you will find the ancestors of Africans.
In the Spanish-speaking Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic), the indigenous people were mostly annihilated (killed by violence or disease) but their cultural and genetic DNA runs through these island populations as does the cultural and genetic DNA of enslaved Africans. Fidel Castro has been criticized for his 1966 post-Revolution pronouncement in Cuba that, “The blood of Africa runs deep in our veins,” mainly because structural discrimination that seemingly excludes Blacks from positions of power and influence in the government, based on our methodology of counting the number of Black people, continues to persist. But if you listen to people like Cuban poet, Nancy Morejón who is of African, Chinese, and European ancestry, her writings suggests that as a Black woman, her life would have been radically different without the Cuban Revolution, and Castro’s efforts to eliminate racial discrimination. According to the Wikipedia author, in her writings, Nancy Morejón “… often expresses an integrationist, unifying stance, in which Spanish and African cultures fuse to make a new, Cuban identity. Much of her work—and the fact that she has been successful within the Cuban regime—locates her as a supporter of Cuban nationalism and the Cuban Revolution.”
La Lucha de Afrodescendientes/the struggle of African descended people
To homogenize Spanish-speaking countries with their diverse histories, cultural practices, and mixture of people (whose origins can derive from any variety of Spanish and Indian; Spanish, Indian, and African; Indian and African; and African) is a misrepresentation of the social reality and is confusing and misleading.
In Central and South America, and in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, Afrodescendientes (African-descended people)have long histories of struggle against inequality; in others, people of African ancestry have embraced the concepts of Mestizaje (mixture) and racial democracy in which a plethora of terms to describe difference have come into existence—moreno, mulatto, pardo, indio claro or indio oscuro, etc. Such terms do little more, according to anthropologist Dr. France Winddance Twine in her classic 1998 book Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil, than mask a harsh systems of racialization.
The evidence of such harshness can be found in the everyday experiences of people from in these countries who are visibly Black or whose ancestry reveals them to have African origins. With minor exceptions, which have occurred primarily because of the internal struggles and activism on the part of Afro-Latinos, their experiences as Afrodescendientes are frequently and systematically characterized by economic, political, legal and social discrimination and disenfranchisement. There are sayings such as “money whitens” that imply wealth can act as a buffer or become a gateway to opportunities, but there is no guarantee if your skin is Black that you won’t be stopped, harassed, and humiliated.
As African Americans in the United States, we sometimes forget that our experiences of oppression are not the center of the universe, and that populations of Black people exist in other countries where they have their own long histories of racialized oppression and of struggling against it. Governments of these Spanish-speaking countries have escaped the kinds of legal and political confrontations that are a part of U.S. Civil Rights and Black Nationalist history is by not keeping racial data as part of the census. This makes empirical documentation of discrimination against Afrodescendientes extremely challenging. The state’s argument has been that they don’t want to “target” those who have the mark of Blackness upon their skin. Nonetheless, our Afrodescendientes counterparts are building upon their histories of resistance (la lucha continua) to make increased demands for equal rights as citizens, access to fair employment and political representation, and the elimination of social practices that exclude them from public spaces and other opportunities.
As Black and white native-born people of the United States, we too often have viewed Latin America through a white lens. Some of this is the result of media magic: the public faces we see that represent “Hispanic” or Spanish-speaking people are all most frequently more white than Black or brown. As a result of these (mis)representations, we come to believe that only white-skinned people live in Argentina, Columbia, Peru, etc. But a history of la esclavitud (slavery) and Blackness runs through the social (and phenotype) veins of Portuguese-speaking Brazil and Spanish-speaking countries, like Argentina, Columbia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Spain, to name a few often portrayed as “white” or “mestizo.”
A Day in the Life of a Black Peruana Woman
Perhaps no one understands how racism is a barrier to Blacks in Peru better than Monica Carrillo Zegerra, an Afro-Peruvian, who also goes by the artistic stage name of Oru (www.oruperu.com). Listening to her daily experiences of living as a Black woman in Peru, poignantly captured in the MTV global series “Element,” (http://www.element-tv.net/news/2007/04/episode-4/), Monica’s life appears profoundly different from that of George Zimmerman’s mother, who has remained outside the limelight, but who is presumed to be a non-Black Peruvian.
Monica Carrillo Zegerra founded the organization LUNDU: Centro de Estudios y Promoción de Afroperuanos (Center for the Study and Promotion of Afroperuvians) (http://lundu.org.pe/) when she was just 26 years old. Now in her thirty’s, Zegerra has spent her life as a political advocate and social force in Peru’s public arena and internationally speaking out against racism in Peru and globally.
A performance artist, “Oru”, uses traditional slave instruments alongside hip-hop rhythms, Zegerra the social activist launched a campaign in 2011 to remove from television a character entitled “Mama Negro,” which stereotyped Black Peruanos – think Amos and Andy meets the minstrel tradition in drag! While Zegerra and LUNDU were successful in their efforts, Zegerra was personally attacked via media like Facebook and Twitter by non-Black Peruvians who felt she was making a big issue out of nothing.
Despite the (mis)representation of Hispanics in the media (mainstream and Spanish-speaking) as primarily white or light skinned, in truth, the majority of the people living in these countries are indigenous and of Indian descent. In Peru, Amerindians are 45%, the next group, known as mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) are 37% but make up the bulk of the wealthy and middle class. Whites are 15% of the Peru’s population, and the remaining 3% are described as Japanese, Chinese and Black.
Zegerra might argue that the latter numbers for Blacks are suspect, since, as noted previously, many Spanish-speaking countries have official policies that promote “color blindness” when it comes to collecting census data. Despite a void in data, any observational or other type of analysis of the living and working conditions of Blacks in these countries reveal that whether you count race in the census or not, it has a very real and powerful impact on the life choices of Afrodescendientes structurally and experientially. In some of these countries, the lack of documentation has resulted in a complete erasure of the Black presence. And, outside of these countries, many of us know very little about the struggles of indigenous people and Blacks to gain greater access to educational, political, economic, and social opportunities. Does this sound familiar?
This lack of documentation coupled with a history and culture of Mestizaje, contrasts sharply with the United States history and its practice of hypo-descent or the one-drop rule (one drop of Black blood defines you as Black). We have seen a growing interest in adding categories like “biracial” and “mixed” to the census. Such categories, given the history, contribute little to understanding what happens in your life (education, employment, health care), if you are perceived as Black. Thus, it matters little what you call yourself; what matters in this country is what people perceive you to be and the racial category to which they attribute you.
Interestingly, as a contrast, people of Latin America have historically embraced the idea of “blanqueamiento,” defined as “… both an ideology and a social practice that refers to ethnic, cultural, and racial whitening.” Thus, as Blacks marry outside of their own groups, they are viewed as less Black and more white. And even these terms have permutations that challenge our concepts of Black and white in the United States. Much like a Facebook status, “it’s complicated.” However, the degree to which you are perceived to be Black regardless of your ancestral mixture, matters as much in Spanish-speaking countries, as it does in the United States.
No to the “Minority Defense,” and why Zimmerman does not get the Hispanic “pass card”
This complex history of racial politics in Central and South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean is the single-most reason why Zimmerman and his supporters cannot claim what Tamara K. Nopper calls the “minority defense” in her exceptional analysis, “20 Years in the Making: George Zimmerman’s ‘Minority Defense’ and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.”
And although people like myself and others writing on this matter can deconstruct Zimmerman from a distance, only he and the deceased, Trayvon Martin, will ever know what really happened that ill-fated night.
What we do know is that the death of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenage, at the hands of Zimmerman, a Hispanic/White man reminds us graphically and tragically that race still matters in the U.S. and globally; and nothing, especially racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, generic prejudice, and stereotyping, is a thing of the past.
Moreover, we must recognize that all of us carry cultural baggage; it clouds our judgment and informs our actions, and reconciliation can only come through a heightened consciousness and an improved justice system that treats every citizen equitably will prevent us from descending into pre-Civil Rights (hell, Pre-Reconstruction) era social conditions. In the 21st century, W.E.B. Du Bois’ prophetic statement, “… for the problem of the Twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,” continues to ring eerily true.
Appeal to the Humanity of my Country:
America, we still have a long way to go in resolving race relations and restoring social justice for all. Martin and Zimmerman are only the most recent faces that beckon us to take heed and do some collective soul searching as a nation and to make haste to implement judicial reforms that will ensure fair and equal treatment for all citizens, regardless of age, race, color, gender, health status, sexual preference, religion, or national origins, under the law.
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©2012 McClaurin Solutions
Irma McClaurin, PhD is the Culture and Education Editor for Insight News of Minneapolis. She is a bio-cultural anthropologist and writer living in Raleigh, NC, the Principal of McClaurin Solutions (a consulting business), and a former university president. She has led workshops on inter-group relations between African Americans and Latin Americans, in 2003 she established the forum Encounters/Encuentras: Conversations between African Americans and Latin Americans at Fisk University, and funded the Afro-Latin@ Project at Queens College while serving as a Program Officer at the Ford Foundation. (www.irmamcclaurin.com) (@mcclaurintweets)