On Latin@ [im]purity

A Rough Draft of Preliminary Thoughts

“Él no es verdaderamente Latino,” she said while staring right at me from across a table. Those words cut me like nothing else. She was one of my Mexican-American classmates in a pre-college summer program I was enrolled in with minorities from across the country. Being judged as “too Americanized” or “not Latino enough” wasn’t necessarily new to me but it was never spelled out that bluntly. I never knew why she felt the need to pass that judgement on me. Was it my broken New York Spanglish? All I knew was that this kind of rejection was extremely painful. To be rejected and excluded by white worlds was a given. But other brown people too?

Over the years, I discovered that experiences of rejection, cultural confusion and disconnection were part of many Latin@ experiences. My parents emigrated from Barranquilla to the U.S. and I was born and raised in NY. I’ve been “back” as in for-the-first-time to Colombia once in my life. Most of my family is still there. I thought I was pretty culturally confused.  But friends who I thought were “unquestionably Latin@,” because their Spanish was madd good and they went back to the motherland all the time, shocked me when they would talk to me about how they felt they could never truly belong anywhere. Maybe being judged as not being Latin@ enough or the feeling of culturally falling short is a rite of passage for actually being a U.S. Latin@? 

Truthfully, the identifier of “Latin@” covers such a wide spectrum. People more in tune with Latin America. People more in tune with the United States. People more Caribbean than anything else.  Recently arrived immigrants. 3rd and 4th generations. The super assimilated. The semi assimilated. The fluctuating assimilatedness. The unassimilated-able. Whites. Blacks. Indigenous. And all shades of caramel (I wish I could use the adjective sun-kissed but some of our caramels come from things far more tragic or unknown than the sun). With all of this, what can Latin@ possibly mean?

One of my friends once expounded to me his “Goya Theory” of how the main function of the Latin@ umbrella term is to basically sell us products. In other words, it may be hard to see ourselves in textbooks or included in various ways throughout our country….but when it comes to selling cell phone plans and cars, you know they got us covered with a Latin@ pitch!

I think there’s a lot of truth to this. But a part of me also wants to go beyond the reductive cynicism of the Goya Theory which my friend expounded to me. Can Latin@ identity also mean something else? Can it be a positive thing which names the nexus of The Americas—Conquests—and-Out-I-come—ness? Yet, if Latin@ identity covers such a wide swatch of experiences, then how will it be defined? Who will be made to be in and who will be made to be out?

It’s a bad idea to reduce Latin@ identity to the Spanish language and to the performance of the Spanish language. To be sure, it’s sad to see the first-tongue or mother-tongue of many Latin@s denigrated and discouraged by some kind of American-English imperialism. And it’s horrible—trust me, I know—to have assimilationist educational methods which encourage English, white history, and strip brown kids of Spanish and their histories. In these contexts, Spanish can be a form of resistance, a way of maintaining connections to our loved ones and our roots.

Nevertheless, it’s quite another thing to allow the Spanish language to become a policing tool to determine who’s really in and who’s really out of the “Latin@” identity. It's then a weapon for purity. We can’t forget the fact that the Spanish and their Spanish historically excluded indigenous and African peoples brought to the Americas who spoke other tongues. It’s ironic or perhaps re-fulfilling prophecy that a language of conquest imposed upon subjugated peoples could be used today to exclude a number of Latin@s who either don’t speak Spanish or don’t speak it “up to par.” In this context, Spanglish and No-Spanish and Quechua are resistance. The policing use of Spanish is colonialism internalized. The Spaniards left. But we kept their colonial ideals.

Honest discussions about Latin@ identity must tackle gendered colonial legacies and the problem of whiteness. How people define the ideal “Latin@” identity is often caught up in hierarchical, racialized ideals. The tricky thing is that this can often come wrapped in nice language about “multiculturalism,” “unity,” and “reconciliation.” Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who teaches at Duke, has forcefully argued that Mestizaje in Latin America (i.e. the idea of racial mixture) was/is used to maintain white supremacy. Mixture was encouraged by nations while approximating whiteness (having “fairer skin,” “better hair,” or “more civilization”) was simultaneously the conscious or unconscious goal. In other words, Afro- and ingenious people could all sit at the table and perhaps could sit higher and more prominently at the table if they came to resemble the ideal form of Spanish whiteness.

Intersectionality means that Latin@s can themselves harbor deep anti-black and anti-indigenous biases against other Latin@s. Colonial aesthetics can impact who is considered “civilized,” “well-mannered,” and “well-spoken.”

The very term Latin@ can be used to exclude trans and gender non-conforming people which is why some prefer the term Latinx because it includes a broader, non-gender-binary spectrum. I—and I don’t know if this is right; I’m still thinking through this—like using both terms. We need Latinx. And maybe we can also remember that the @ in Latin@ is open and not a completely closed or proper a/o for a reason? Idk.

With all the problems and policing associated with “Latin@ identity,” I still have prayers about it being a redemptive thing, a way to name the messy colonial history of the Americas from which many of us come, a way to resist assimilation. The legacy of the United States would have us forget who we are and where we come from. That’s how whiteness works.

If there are problems with excluding certain people from the marker of Latin@ then there also exist problems with some people who include themselves in that marker. For example, is it okay for people to check the Latin@ box for admissions when they don't strongly identify with Latin@ identity/culture outside of the application process?

What about people who are half Latin@, mixed, or who through no fault of their own, or perhaps through faults of their own, are very disconnected from their roots?

The reality is that for many of us, our connection to our “roots” is always a tenuous one. A combination of our agencies and external forces have created deep distances. Our histories fade fast in the optimistic American Dream for which there is only Present.

For some of us, we are not simply a people displaced. We are people for whom our very being is displaced. We live an exilic existence. There is no home. And from that vantage point, we dream about heaven. We are still looking for a city with different foundations that can include people like us. Cuz it's clear, so many of the places we're in were never built for us. 

I don’t think Latin@ identity should be reduced to some form of cultural or linguistic “mastery" of performance. That would simply re-play the worst tragedies of our colonial pasts. There is no purity. There are gradations of impurities. The Spanish came with the purity. 

But neither should identifying as Latin@ be taken as something lightly, as something expedient that simply gives an edge on applications.

Some have drank the Dream and burnt the bridges. The tenuous ties have been cut. Maybe how some Irish did it. Idk.

It’s one thing to be ashamed or profoundly indifferent towards the realities that Latin@ identity includes and then to randomly use ancestry for expedient purposes. It’s another thing to be searching. To be trying. To resist. And the resistance ain’t another form of mastery. We are all trying. There’s room for all of us. There’s that part of us that we don’t want to die. Better to suffer than accept a living death.

I like family gatherings and church gatherings where all sorts of people are together. The elders. The kids. Motley crews. And those times when the kids get over making fun of their parents who can’t say STOP but always say EH-STOP. And those times when the kids aren’t called gringos. Spanish. English. Spanglish. Broken versions of all of the above flying throughout the room. Spontaneous Translators (or interpreters, for you sticklers).  And there is an understanding. A stretch to understand and leave nobody behind. There is love. People breaking tongues in love.