As a Spanish major and a Mexican-American, I am interested in understanding Latin American culture. Certain classes through the Spanish department — like History 348: Latin America: The National Period and Spanish 430: Race and Nation in Latin America — have exposed me to the breadth and richness of Latin America. From taking these classes, I, like many other historians, sociologists and poets, realized how illogical it is to brand people in the United States as Latino. Latino is not a race.
Latino is an American construct and a blanket term covering over 400 million people spanning beyond three continents. Using one simple term like Latino doesn’t begin to capture the complexity of the people it includes, or the scope of its use. To me, race implies color, but Latinos cover the entire spectrum. They range from the whitest of Spaniards (yes, even redheads) to the piel morena (the U.S. standard “Mexican or something” medium brown skin tone) to the black of Caribbean Spanish-speakers from the African Diaspora who ended up in every country from the Dominican Republic and Cuba to Argentina and Venezuela. That’s right; Latinos can be black, white, red and yellow. For some reason, the skewed American perception imposes its ideas of racial identity onto people of this obscure category. It puts Dominicans or Cubans (or any other nationality with dark skin) in an odd spot. How can they tell the Census that they’re Hispanic/Latino and Black at the same time? Bi-racial doesn’t exactly cover it either — the same way mestizo didn’t really cover their collective history.
Collective culture also exists between the many different ethnicities covered by Latino, but that doesn’t make any of them interchangeable. Similar to the way an American may get offended by being called Canadian by an ignorant foreigner, Cubans don’t like being mistaken for Peruvian or Puerto Rican. Each country carries an individual identity, but our perception of Latino is limited to the countries we are exposed to and blends the rest together, making Latino only Mexican or only Puerto Rican when it should be more inclusive than that. Unfortunately, its vibrant and diverse culture has limited exposure in the U.S. and the popular Latin perception has been manufactured to mean something different from what it is, and often carries negative connotations of reggaetón, gang violence and drug trafficking.
Since it applies to so many cultures and ethnicities, asserting an individual Latino identity is difficult. In twenty-two years of identifying as a Latino, I have struggled with things as arbitrary as a last name — my last name is German and not Mexican. So I thought learning Spanish and understanding the culture would bridge the perceived gap. During academic breaks I would search for Spanish novels to read and maintain fluency. I remember two summers ago when I really felt like I was Latino. My entire reading list was comprised of “Latino” novels: “Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada” (Chronicle of a Death Foretold), “The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love”, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “The Savage Detectives.” But then I had to catch myself during a few moments because I, still with a bit of lingering prejudice, wondered why authors with names like Daniel Alarcón and Junot Díaz were writing in English. I realized I would have been remiss if I did not accept that moving to the United States and having children who speak English is part of Latino history.
Latino means so many things. So using race as a means of identification is problematic. We know that already — we are college students. We have probably beaten this “race” horse to death both inside and outside the classroom. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is enlightened. It takes close study and questioning of a subject to fully understand it. Acceptance of the broad concept of Latino is easy, but striving to understand the depth of the various cultures within Latino is a better way to approach the subject.
Nick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.