Seeing More Than Black & White
(Latinos, racism, and the cultural divides)
A certain relish seems irresistible to this Latina as the mass media has been compelled to sit up, look south of the border, and take notice. Probably the Chiapas uprising and Mexico’s recent political turmoil have won us no more than a brief day in the sun. Or even less: liberal Ted Koppel still hadn’t noticed the historic assassination of presidential candidate Colosio three days afterward. But it’s been sweet, anyway.
When Kissinger said years ago “nothing important ever happens in the south,” he articulated a contemptuous indifference toward Latin America, its people and their culture which has long dominated U.S. institutions and attitudes. Mexico may be great for a vacation and some people like burritos but the usual image of Latin America combines incompetence with absurdity in loud colors. My parents, both Spanish teachers, endured decades of being told kids were better off learning French.
U.S. political culture is not only Anglo-dominated but also embraces an exceptionally stubborn national self-centeredness, with no global vision other than relations of domination. The U.S. refuses to see itself as one nation sitting on a continent with 20 others all speaking languages other than English and having the right not to be dominated.
Such arrogant indifference extends to Latinos within the U.S. The mass media complain, “people can’t relate to Hispanics” – or Asians, they say. Such arrogant indifference has played an important role in invisibilizing La Raza (except where we become a serious nuisance or a handy scapegoat). It is one reason the U.S. harbors an exclusively white-on-Black concept of racism. It is one barrier to new thinking about racism which is crucial today. There are others.
Good-bye White Majority
In a society as thoroughly and violently racialized as the United States, white-Black relations have defined racism for centuries. Today the composition and culture of the U.S. are changing rapidly. We need to consider seriously whether we can afford to maintain an exclusively white/Black model of racism when the population will be 32 percent Latino, Asian/Pacific American and Native American – in short, neither Black nor white – by the year 2050. We are challenged to recognize that multi-colored racism is mushrooming, and then strategize how to resist it. We are challenged to move beyond a dualism comprised of two white supremacist inventions: Blackness and Whiteness.
At stake in those challenges is building a united anti-racist force strong enough to resist contemporary racist strategies of divide-and- conquer. Strong enough, in the long run, to help defeat racism itself. Doesn’t an exclusively Black/white model of racism discourage the perception of common interests among people of color and thus impede a solidarity that can challenge white supremacy? Doesn’t it encourage the isolation of African Americans from potential allies? Doesn’t it advise all people of color to spend too much energy understanding our lives in relation to Whiteness, and thus freeze us in a defensive, often self- destructive mode?
No “Oppression Olympics”
For a Latina to talk about recognizing the multi-colored varieties of racism is not, and should not be, yet another round in the Oppression Olympics. We don’t need more competition among different social groupings for that “Most Oppressed” gold. We don’t need more comparisons of suffering between women and Blacks, the disabled and the gay, Latino teenagers and white seniors, or whatever. We don’t need more surveys like the recent much publicized Harris Poll showing that different peoples of color are prejudiced toward each other – a poll patently designed to demonstrate that us coloreds are no better than white folk. (The survey never asked people about positive attitudes.)
Rather, we need greater knowledge, understanding, and openness to learning about each other’s histories and present needs as a basis for working together. Nothing could seem more urgent in an era when increasing impoverishment encourages a self-imposed separatism among people of color as a desperate attempt at community survival. Nothing could seem more important as we search for new social change strategies in a time of ideological confusion.
My call to rethink concepts of racism in the U.S. today is being sounded elsewhere. Among academics, liberal foundation administrators, and activist-intellectuals, you can hear talk of the need for a new “racial paradigm” or model. But new thinking seems to proceed in fits and starts, as if dogged by a fear of stepping on toes, of feeling threatened, or of losing one’s base. With a few notable exceptions, even our progressive scholars of color do not make the leap from perfunctorily saluting a vague multi-culturalism to serious analysis. We seem to have made little progress, if any, since Bob Blauner’s 1972 book “Racial Oppression in America”. Recognizing the limits of the white-Black axis, Blauner critiqued White America’s ignorance of and indifference to the Chicano/a experience with racism.
Real opposition to new paradigms also exists. There are academics scrambling for one flavor of ethnic studies funds versus another. There are politicians who cultivate distrust of others to keep their own communities loyal. When we hear, for example, of Black/Latino friction, dismay should be quickly followed by investigation. In cities like Los Angeles and New York, it may turn out that political figures scrapping for patronage and payola have played a narrow nationalist game, whipping up economic anxiety and generating resentment that sets communities against each other.
So the goal here, in speaking about moving beyond a bi-polar concept of racism is to build stronger unity against white supremacy. The goal is to see our similarities of experience and needs. If that goal sounds naive, think about the hundreds of organizations formed by grassroots women of different colors coming together in recent years. Their growth is one of today’s most energetic motions and it spans all ages. Think about the multicultural environmental justice movement. Think about the coalitions to save schools. Small rainbows of our own making are there, to brighten a long road through hellish times.
It is in such practice, through daily struggle together, that we are most likely to find the road to greater solidarity against a common enemy. But we also need a will to find it and ideas about where, including some new theory.
The West Goes East
Until very recently, Latino invisibility – like that of Native Americans and Asian/Pacific Americans – has been close to absolute in U.S. seats of power, major institutions, and the non-Latino public mind. Having lived on both the East and West Coasts for long periods, I feel qualified to pronounce: an especially myopic view of Latinos prevails in the East. This, despite such data as a 24.4 percent Latino population of New York City alone in 1991, or the fact that in 1990 more Puerto Ricans were killed by New York police under suspicious circumstances than any other ethnic group. Latino populations are growing rapidly in many eastern cities and the rural South, yet remain invisibile or stigmatized – usually both.
Eastern blinders persist. I’ve even heard that the need for a new racial paradigm is dismissed in New York as a California hangup. A black Puerto Rican friend in New York, when we talked about experiences of racism common to Black and brown, said “People here don’t see Border Patrol brutality against Mexicans as a form of police repression,” despite the fact that the Border Patrol is the largest and most uncontrolled police force in the U.S. It would seem that an old ignorance has combined with new immigrant bashing to sustain divisions today.
While the East (and most of the Midwest) usually remains myopic, the West Coast has barely begun to move away from its own denial. Less than two years ago in San Francisco, a city almost half Latino or Asian/Pacific American, a leading daily newspaper could publish a major series on contemporary racial issues and follow the exclusively Black-white paradigm. Although millions of TV viewers saw massive Latino participation in the April 1992 Los Angeles uprising, which included 18 out of 50 deaths and the majority of arrests, the mass media and most people labeled that event “a Black riot.”
If the West Coast has more recognition of those who are neither Black nor white, it is mostly out of fear about the proximate demise of its white majority. A second, closely related reason is the relentless campaign by California Gov. Pete Wilson to scapegoat immigrants for economic problems and pass racist, unconstitutional laws attacking their health, education, and children’s future. Wilson has almost single-handedly made the word “immigrant” mean Mexican or other Latino (and sometimes Asian). Who thinks of all the people coming from the former Soviet Union and other countries? The absolute racism of this has too often been successfully masked by reactionary anti- immigrant groups like FAIR blaming immigrants for the staggering African-American unemployment rate.
Wilson’s immigrant bashing is likely to provide a model for other parts of the country. The five states with the highest immigration rates – California, Florida, New York, Illinois and Texas – all have a Governor up for re-election in 1994. Wilson tactics won’t appear in every campaign but some of the five states will surely see intensified awareness and stigmatization of Latinos as well as Asian/Pacific Islanders.
As this suggests, what has been a regional issue mostly limited to western states is becoming a national issue. If you thought Latinos were just Messicans down at the border, wake up – they are all over North Carolina, Pennsylvania and 8th Avenue Manhattan now. A qualitative change is taking place. With the broader geographic spread of Latinos and Asian/Pacific Islanders has come a nationalization of racist practices and attitudes that were once regional. The west goes east, we could say.
Like the monster Hydra, racism is growing some ugly new heads. We will have to look at them closely.
The Roots Of Racism And Latinos
A bi-polar model of racism – racism as white on Black – has never really been accurate. Looking for the roots of racism in the U.S. we can begin with the genocide against American Indians which made possible the U.S. land base, crucial to white settlement and early capitalist growth. Soon came the massive enslavement of African people which facilitated that growth. As slave labor became economically critical, “blackness” became ideologically critical; it provided the very source of “whiteness” and the heart of racism. Franz Fanon would write, “colour is the most outward manifestation of race.”
If Native Americans had been a crucial labor force during those same centuries, living and working in the white man’s sphere, our racist ideology might have evolved differently. “The tawny,” as Ben Franklin dubbed them, might have defined the opposite of what he called “the lovely white.” But with Indians decimated and survivors moved to distant concentration camps, they became unlikely candidates for this function. Similarly, Mexicans were concentrated in the distant West; elsewhere Anglo fear of them or need for control was rare. They also did not provide the foundation for a definition of whiteness.
Some anti-racist left activists have put forth the idea that only African Americans experience racism as such and that the suffering of other people of color results from national minority rather than racial oppression. From this viewpoint, the exclusively white/Black model for racism is correct. Latinos, then, experience exploitation and repression for reasons of culture and nationality – not for their “race.” (It should go without saying in
The bridge here might be a definition of racism as “the reduction of the cultural to the biological,” in the words of French scholar Christian Delacampagne now working in Egypt. Or: “racism exists wherever it is claimed that a given social status is explained by a given natural characteristic.” We know that line: Mexicans are just naturally lazy and have too many children, so they’re poor and exploited.
The discrimination, oppression and hatred experienced by Native Americans, Mexicans, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and Arab Americans are forms of racism. Speaking only of Latinos, we have seen in California and the Southwest, especially along the border, almost 150 years of relentless repression which today includes Central Americans among its targets. That history reveals hundreds of lynchings between 1847 and 1935, the use of counter-insurgency armed forces beginning with the Texas Rangers, random torture and murder by Anglo ranchers, forced labor, rape by border lawmen, and the prevailing Anglo belief that a Mexican life doesn’t equal a dog’s in value.
But wait. If color is so key to racial definition, as Fanon and others say, perhaps people of Mexican background experience racism less than national minority oppression because they are not dark enough as a group. For White America, shades of skin color are crucial to defining worth. The influence of those shades has also been internalized by communities of color. Many Latinos can and often want to pass for whites; therefore White America may see them as less threatening than darker sisters and brothers.
Here we confront more of the complexity around us today, with questions like: What about the usually poor, very dark Mexican or Central American of strong Indian or African heritage? (Yes, folks, 200-300,000 Africans were brought to Mexico as slaves, which is far, far more than the Spaniards who came.) And what about the effects of accented speech or foreign name, characteristics that may instantly subvert “passing?”
What about those cases where a Mexican-American is never accepted, no matter how light-skinned, well-dressed or well-spoken? A Chicano lawyer friend coming home from a professional conference in suit, tie and briefcase found himself on a bus near San Diego that was suddenly stopped by the Border Patrol. An agent came on board and made a beeline through the all-white rows of passengers direct to my friend. “Your papers.” The agent didn’t believe Jose was coming from a U.S. conference and took him off the bus to await proof. Jose was lucky; too many Chicanos and Mexicans end up killed.
In a land where the national identity is white, having the “wrong” nationality becomes grounds for racist abuse. Who would draw a sharp line between today’s national minority oppression in the form of immigrant- bashing, and racism?
None of this aims to equate the African American and Latino experiences; that isn’t necessary even if it were accurate. Many reasons exist for the persistence of the white/Black paradigm of racism; they include numbers, history, and the psychology of whiteness. In particular they include centuries of slave revolts, a Civil War, and an ongoing resistance to racism that cracked this society wide open while the world watched. Nor has the misery imposed on Black people lessened in recent years. New thinking about racism can and should keep this experience at the center.
A Deadly Dualism
The exclusively white/Black concept of race and racism in the U.S. rests on a western, Protestant form of dualism woven into both race and gender relations from earliest times. In the dualist universe there is only black and white. A disdain, indeed fear, of mixture haunts the Yankee soul; there is no room for any kind of multi- faceted identity, any hybridism.
As a people, La Raza combines three sets of roots – indigenous, European and African – all in widely varying degrees. In short we represent a profoundly un-American concept: Mexicans in the U.S. also defy the either-or, dualistic mind in that, on the one hand, we are a colonized people displaced from the ancestral homeland with roots in the present-day U.S. that go back centuries. Those ancestors didn’t cross the border; the border crossed them. At the same time many of us have come to the U.S. more recently as “immigrants” seeking work. The complexity of Raza baffles and frustrates most Anglos; they want to put one neat label on us. It baffles many Latinos too, who often end up categorizing themselves racially as “Other” for lack of anything better. For that matter, the term “Latino” which I use here is a monumental simplification; it refers to 20-plus nationalities and a wide range of classes.
But we need to grapple with the complexity, for there is more to come. If anything, this nation will see more
Sometimes the problem seems so clear. Last year I showed slides of Chicano history to a Oakland high school class with 47 African Americans and three Latino students. The images included lynchings and police beatings of Mexicans and other Latinos, and many years of resistance. At the end one Black student asked, “Seems like we have had a lot of experiences in common – so why can’t Blacks and Mexicans get along better?” No answers, but there was the first step: asking the question.
Fields of Dreams
From: Juan A. Marinez
MIGRANT WORKER ERICA SANCHEZ WANTS HER WORLD TO GO BEYOND THE CHERRY FARMS MICHIGAN SUTTONS BAY
Erica Sanchez has been picking cherries since second grade, since the day her father decided she was old and strong enough to strap a pail around her neck and go to work with her family.
She is 22 now, with goals and dreams far loftier than the cherry trees Leelanau County. She cannot begin to estimate the number of cherries that passed through her small hands. Yet even after 14 years, she will stop sometimes and look at a single cherry cradled in her palm.
At that instant – those few seconds in a hot, dirty day – “I feel special Sanchez says. She’ll notice the curves of the cherry, the shades of red an the spots of yellow or green, and she’ll think, “Hey, I picked this cherry. maybe Madonna will eat it, or President Clinton.”
Five months a year, her world is a migrant camp and the fields and orchards around it. At the same time, her world and her pride have no limit. She is proud of her father, who used to ride his bicycle across the border from Mexico to work in the fields. Of her mother, who rises at 5 to make the tortillas the family will eat for lunch. Of her older sister Christina, a nursing student. Of her high school diploma, her plan to become schoolteacher and her vision of summers spent helping the migrant children remind her of herself.
Sanchez, her parents, her two brothers and two younger sisters left the southern tip of Texas a month ago in a 1983 Dodge Van. In Suttons Bay, 17 miles north of Traverse City, they live a familiar routine: the strawberry harvest, then cherries, then apples as the weather turns and they begin to for home.
A long winter and cool spring pushed back the strawberry harvest until and will delay the beginning of cherry season to next week at the earliest. For the first time Sanchez can remember, none of her cherries will grace the National Cherry Festival, which ends its eight-day run Saturday in Traverse City.
Sanchez has never been to the festival, which brings 500,000 people to northwest corner of the Michigan mitten. She has never seen the bands and floats and Budweiser Clydesdales of the Cherry Royale Parade, or eaten at the Sara Lee Cherry Pie Pavillion, or watched a free concert at the bay-front bandstand.
But even as the festival imports 30,000 pounds of fresh cherries from Washington, it acknowlodges a bond with Sanchez. For all the heavy machine rumbling through orchards at harvest times, she and a few thousand other migrant workers remain the literal backbone of the industry.
Migrants hand-pick virtually all the sweet cherries, the ones that go directly from carton to mouth. After mechanical tree-shakers drop tart cherries from other trees onto tarpaulins, migrants hold the heavy tarps le while the machines pull the cherries onto conveyor belts. Migrants sort cherries at processing plants and spray pesticides. And once in a while, a migrant might hold a round, ripe, perfect cherry in the palm of her hand and wonder at it all.
SANCHEZ HOLDS OUT her arms to Carina Barrajas, and the curly-haired 11-month old climbs into her lap and stop squalling.
Carina is the dauther of a family friend who bunks in another camp. It’s a few days before the beginning of strawberry season, and the migrants, idle for two weeks, are running out of ways to fill time Sanchez is tending Carina in the crowded living of an elderly mobile home. She is go with babies. Good with all kids, in fact: Two years ago, she was a teacher aid at a summer migrant school and day care center.
This summer, she will work mostly with fruit, either picking or sorting On fortunate days, she may be assigned to baby-sit. But her father tells himm all the time to work toward something else. It’s the American Dream, outline in Spanish. Get an education. Be somebody. Do better than your parents.
Domingo Sanchez Sr. was born in the United States, but he and his wife, Eleuteria, grew up in Mexico. Neither speaks English.
For the three older kids, points out Erica Sanchez, “there was nobody to help us with our homework.” The three youngest have been luckier, getting educational hand me downs from their siblings, but they still have to switch schools every fall when the family drives the 1,800 miles back to Elsa, Texas
Sanchez’s English is accented but grammatically solid, an odd advantage learning it exclusively at school. Confident and outgoing, she has evolved into the family spokeswoman. When the Sanchezes wanted to bring friends no to work this year, Erica dialed up the president of Cherry Bay Orchards.
Dan Gregory said sure, bring’em up. The Sanchezes have worked for him eight years, and he trusts them. Besides, he wouldn’t want to disapoint he “Everyone likes Erica,” Gregory says. She is the life of what passes for party: “Regardless of who she’s working with, she’ll joke around with them. A little playfulness, explains Sanchez, helps people forget how much their muscles ache. “You have to be there, so you might as well try to make it fun.”
She does not look to be cut out for field work. With her high cheek bone and rounded face, she seems too young to drive, let alone work a seven-day week. Were this a workday, she would be wearing a baseball cap over her shoulder-length hair and long sleeves to protect her arms from pesticides. Instead, she chose a short a short-sleeved black top, black print slacks an backless espadrilles.
On her right middle finger is her ring from Edcouch-Elsa High School. So could not afford a genstone, so the center of the ring is clear glass. Etc in the glass is the school mascot the industrius bee. THE REWARD for years of good work and loyalty is the best trailer in the camp.
Five mobile homes squat on one side of a grass and gravel cul-de-sac surrounded by towering maples. A chain of clotheslines stretches the length the oval drive. The Sanchez home, the last of the cluster, sits parallel to the gravel road. Two bench-style car seats out front serve as lawn chairs.
Erica Sanchez and sisters Diana, 13, and Brenda, 10, share one bedroom. Their parents get the other. Domingo Jr., 21 and Jose Miguel, 18, sleep on tattered sofas in the living room, where the door is open to an early after breeze.
“This is heaven for us, for camp to be like this,” Erica Sanchez says, others in the living room nod. Some migrants have to sleep in tents. Other sleep in their cars. “We’ve stayed where the shower is outside, the bathroom is outside, everything is outside.”
The Sanchezes have a television and a stereo old enough that it uses a turntable. They had a phone two summers ago but took it out after Erica ran a $200 bill calling friends in Elsa. To the left of the television, stacked next to the door, are four fresh tires for the van.
Jose Miguel is parked across from the tires, playing a video game on the TV set with Robert Orozco. Jose Miguel is in a recliner, and Robert, a 14-yr. old camp neighbor, is slouched across the mismatched ottoman. He’s wearing black Michael Jordan uniform top.
Diana and Brenda are riding herd on a 3-year-old girl and 8-month-old boy the children of another camp neighbor. Domingo Sr. is watching the video game and Eleuteria is watching everything.
“Strawberries are the worst,” Erica says, and again there is agreement in the room. “You have to bend down all day. You get home, and you’re all red You even smell like a strawberry.”
The only good thing about strawberry season is that it means that cherries are coming. All harvests pay roughly the same, about $250 a week after taxe for a good picker. But cherries are easier, there is more variety to the work and the fruit tastes terrific right off the tree.
“I can eat cherries all day and all night,” Sanchez says, smiling at the thought. Workers can take cherries home, and they tend to eat them until the bodies beg for mercy.
“You going to get sick this year?” Jose Miguel asks Robert.
Robert, busy killing futuristic gladiators, does not take his eyes from TV screen. “Yep.”
IN THE EARLY 1960’S, before automation, northwest Michigan growers needed 35,000 migrants to get the crops in.
Local restaurants served blueplate Mexican dinners on Thursday night. On weekends, Spanish-language movies were projected onto the outside wall of a store in Suttons Bay.
The industry gets by nowadays with 4,500 migrants, many of whom work only during apple season. A dead-end job has become deader.
By the time the younger girls finish high school, the Sanchezes may have given up the road. Christina will be a nurse. Domingo Jr. has trained to paint cars. Domingo Sr., who built the family’s small home in Elsa, is slow working on a larger one-four bedrooms, two baths-and he says that when it is finished, so is he.
Only Erica plans to keep coming north.
She has found her calling and her college, Pan American University of Edinburg, Texas. She has not found the money to go there, but she says with absolute certainty that she will.
She will become Miss Sanchez the schoolteacher, and when her students go home for the summer, she will go to Suttons Bay. She will work with migrant children, she says, teaching them to read and dream. And every year, on a bright July Saturday, they will all go to the cherry festival parade.