Latina/os and the Façade of Whiteness

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Photo: John Lamb, flickr.com

Photo: John Lamb, flickr.com

By: Dana Torres

I am certain many have seen the article titled “More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White” by now. Although I knew that “we” – as Latina/os – needed the opportunity to respond, admittedly, I cannot and do not want to speak for every “Hispanic.” That term alone encompasses a myriad of countries, origins, nationalities, identities, cultures, races, and ethnicities. With that said, I choose to speak only for myself, as a Puerto Rican woman, as a Caribbean-American – for these are the identities I choose for myself, of which I believe myself completely capable and competent of doing.

When I read the article, I couldn’t help but recall the voices of individuals who have taught me lessons about being Latina in this country. Soledad O’Brien has admitted to “messing up” on the Census because, as she recognizes and has verbally stated, it is very flawed. It forces people to self-identify racially, despite only offering faulty constructions and categories to choose from.

I once heard someone say that boxer Tito Trinidad cannot be ‘Black’ because he is Puerto Rican. This raises the question what is Black? And, if he, who is very much dark-skinned, cannot declare himself as Black, then what are the rest of us to do with these types of limitations that are set against us by other individuals and the government alike?

Hip-hop activist Rosa Clemente says she is Puerto Rican and, therefore, Black, and has chosen to fight this battle everyday. She, like many others, has realized that the system is set up in a way that forces you to choose who you are but never on your own terms.

Historically, the term “Hispanic” was specifically defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American” and ends with “or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race” thereby including the European country of Spain. The very term was produced by the United States government to refer to persons with a historical and cultural relationship with either Spain or Portugal, regardless of race. So what we do know is that we are basically designating labels which reveal which countries were colonized by Spain or Portugal.

Alongside the term’s convoluted origins, we are, as Latina/os, are also up against forces that do not want us to know who we are. The nation’s history books do not document our achievements, tell us our history, nor our genealogical roots. Puerto Rico is left out of classrooms despite being colonized by the U.S. more than a century ago. In fact, studying about ourselves has become illegal within classrooms in Arizona; and Texas and Tennessee are trying to mythologize our nation’s history by extracting the word “colonization” from all of their history textbooks. Fundamentally, we are being forced to submit ourselves to an insufficient list of options that do not encompass our full cultural and historical experiences, which our society also does not teach. This is the conundrum in which our people exist; the everyday realities which are not mentioned in the aforementioned article.

To speak more directly on the article, I must ask: where is this mounting evidence showing that Hispanics are “the new Italians”? The article simply links to another opinion piece titled “Hispanics, the new Italians” in which its author states that “there have been multiple reasons to wonder if [Hispanics] would assimilate and thrive.” Therein lies the problem in the United States, whereby thriving is equated with assimilation into Whiteness. This plays into a fallacious ideology in which Whiteness signifies all that is right in the world, and thus, reinforces the idea that in order to be successful, we must let go of the things that make us non-White and “inferior.” In other words, to be accepted and absorbed into the social construction that is Whiteness, we must accept a new pseudo-reality of racial and cultural ignorance.

Additionally, as a country, we gauge the progress of certain groups by determining who climbs the economic ladder. Yet, we must ask ourselves: what we are being forced to do and give up, as well as what we are being prevented from holding on to, in order to climb it?

The article also states that  “Race is an immutable characteristic for many white, black and Asian-Americans. It is less clear for Americans of Hispanic origin.” Of course it is! Our very history speaks to the complexities of our racial/ ethnic ancestry, which involves many different groups of people. This is not as simple or clear cut, regardless of the U.S. government’s attempts to make it so.

For someone such as myself, a Viequense Puerto Rican, there is not an answer I can choose. I am Puerto Rican, and if I must choose a follow-up question I would need an answer choice that this government is incapable of providing because they cannot even begin to understand what being Puerto Rican entails (not to mention they spelled it Porto Rico up until 1932!).

Lastly, the article ends by saying that “white identification is not necessarily a sign that Hispanics consider themselves white” and that White identifiers are more likely to be second- and third generation Hispanics. I take this paragraph to be the most important because it only reinforces the problems and barriers stacked against us by highlighting who the White identifiers may be.

In essence, we have been presented an article full of ambiguity and unknowns. This drastic shift towards White identification amongst Hispanics should compel us to reconsider this false paradigm of success. As someone who’s had the privilege of being born and raised in Puerto Rico, my first reaction is to ask many questions, such as:

Did White identifiers feel completely satisfied with the limited answer choices? What changed between then and now to create such a shift? Is this a reflection of living in fear due to the legalities of the state and the impact it could have on Hispanic families? Are we teaching our kids that Whiteness is what they should strive for because we believe it ensures their success? Lastly, is this answer on the Census considered a compromise?

This article only reinforces what we already knew –  the Census system is inadequate and we have much bigger problems at hand that must be evaluated: the construction of Whiteness, our allure towards it, and the implications of our potential absorption into this social construct.

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Dana Torres is from Vieques, Puerto Rico. She received her undergraduate degree in Spanish and is currently a graduate student at Cal State East Bay, where she studies speech and language pathology.

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