People often define Latinos as a ‘race’, but Latinos come from a wide variety of racial, national and cultural backgrounds. The Latino identity is, thus, not racial but intersectional.
When Donald Trump speaks ill of Mexicans and Latinos, he is not—contrary to what many people think—being racist, for Latinos are not a racial group but a cultural one.
Donald Trump and many others—including Latinos themselves—fail to understand that due to the complex and intricate historical process of conquest, colonisation, and interracial integration of what is now known as Latin America, one cannot refer to the people whose origins are rooted in this region of the world as a racial group. Race as a social construct refers to a group of individuals who share similar and distinct physical and genetic traits, a definition that is not fit to describe the genetically and physically varied characteristics of Latinos. The Spanish, the French, and the Portuguese, who settled in Latin America and established colonial systems, used Amerindians and Africans as slave labour for the exploitation of minerals and farming. In spite of the strict racial divides of society, interracial interaction flourished, producing ‘in-between’ racial categories such as the Mestizos, Zambos, as well as Mulatos, among others. In other words, these people fall into the broad category of the ignorantly-called ‘brown’ people. Moreover, the Spanish believed that if you fell into any of these categories, your bloodline could be “whitened” if you and your offspring married white people.
They were wrong. Regarding genetics, there is no such thing as “whitening” of one’s bloodline. Our distorted notion of race, especially biases towards certain skin colours, do not have any supported ground in genetics.
Currently in Latin America, ancient Amerindian and African cultures are still preserved, and many families preserve their European, Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern heritage. This heritage has influenced, and is reflected in, Latin American culture greatly. One particularly fascinating example is Peruvian cuisine. Peruvian ‘arroz chaufa’ and ‘tiradito’ fuse Chinese and Peruvian traditions: they are dishes that have become Peruvian classics, but started with Chinese immigrants cooking with ingredients indigenous to the Andean region. Similarly, the Peruvian ‘ceviche’ became a major national dish because of the Japanese, who immigrated in the late 19th Century and started preparing raw fish with lemon, chilis, and other native ingredients. In short, many mainstays of Latin American cultures developed from the integration of European, Asian, and African cultural influences mixing with the resources, knowledge, and customs of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Thus, “Latin American” is not a race, but an integration of many genetically and physically distinct groups and their cultural traditions. Being terminologically accurate, by deriding Mexicans and Latinos, Trump is xenophobic, not racist. Even the Mexican government, in its response to Trump’s immigration plan, is making a mistake in language by condemning it as “racist” and “absurd” (although, of course, it certainly is the latter). Latin America is a region where people and cultures from all over the world have converged and integrated, creating a rich and unique collectivity of nations and cultures. And yet, this is what makes it so hard to construct a common Latin American identity.
Latin America as a concept is relatively new. It exists as a result of the addition of borrowed ideas from all the other continents in the world. In a way, Latin American identity is a synthesis of foreign concepts, but at the same time, it is such a complex and diverse system that it cannot exist as a single cultural or nationalist unit. The Latin American people need time to reflect upon the elements that they have in common that could help in the construction of a distinctly Latin American identity, all the while getting rid of the colonial heritage that keeps nations in this region from rejecting biases based on skin color. It is imperative to acknowledge and preserve the influence that external cultural factors have had on Latin America’s development, but that must not keep Latin America from finding its identity. Latin America needs its voice. It cannot just gather the voices that helped shaped it. The relevance of defining a collective cultural identity is that of developing a sense of belonging while striving to create and promote philosophies that are unique to Latin America.
Latin American history illustrates that race is nothing more than a social construct. Our skin colour does not define us as a Latinos.
What do you think are the causes for the racial misconceptions surrounding the concept of ‘Latino’? How can one challenge societal constructs of race and racial stereotypes against Latinos and other groups? Let us know in the comments below.