‘Latino’ is Not a Race

A video featuring poet Noel Quiñones came across my desk.

According to his website, Quiñones is “a Puerto Rican poet, actor, organizer, and performance artist born and raised in the Bronx. He travels the country giving his talk ‘Beyond the Black/White Binary: The Inner Ethnic Conflict of Latinidad,’ seeking to explore the challenges that face Latinx people as well as the false narratives they carry in 21st-century America.”

I’m not really a spoken-word-poetry kinda guy so much as a power-clean-100kg-for-reps kinda guy, but I can respect game. The dude’s good. He could probably be on that old HBO show with Mos Def, if it were still around. And he’s definitely better than the homie Schmidt.

As far as the message, I thought, well that sucks. Too bad bro.

It’s not that sad though. Not to gringo expats. For us, it’s obvious that speaking Spanish must not be that important to him. Just a minor nuisance. After all, learning is as simple as moving to Puerto Rico for a year or two. Or anywhere else in the region.

But he has a promising career in the States. He’s American, basically a gringo. And that’s what happens to immigrants’ bloodlines over time. They melt into the pot. But that’s the golden goose. That’s what his parents or grandparents wanted – for him to make it on his own merit in Gringolandia.

Quiñones’s shame for not speaking Spanish isn’t what inspired this post. What inspired this post was the Facebook thread that followed when Remezcla shared the video on their Facebook page.

As a gringo in Latin America, I enjoy following Remezcla on Facebook to read the perspectives of Latins in Gringolandia. The other side of the coin. And this one was a whopper. Some people were furious that this guy could not speak Spanish. Most of the fury was directed at his parents.

The more curious comments dealt with Latin solidarity and the undertones of resisting the white man.

I would have bought that line of shit before I ever moved to Latin America, but now that I’ve assimilated down here I think it’s absurd. Nobody in Latin America thinks that way. It actually reveals a gringo mentality of sorts, buried behind the Latin façade.

Obviously growing up Latin in a gringo country makes them a minority. And I don’t doubt that they’ve suffered real discrimination and may harbor contempt. That’s something I can never truly understand as a corn-fed white boy from the Midwest.

But still, that idea only exists in Gringolandia.

Some Latin Americans may feel national solidarity among their fellow Peruvians, Colombians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans or whatever. A few even feel a Latin solidarity, but it is not a racial solidarity. The United States definitely has its problems with racism, but Latin countries do too. In some ways they’re worse.

When you grow up in the United States, the standardized tests you take in school have a page or two of profiling questions before the real test begins. One of the questions is always about race, and when I was growing up one of the choices was always “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

And growing up in the States, you begin to think of “Hispanic” and “Latino” as a separate race. You may still see it that way. I did until I took the LatAm plunge.

I don’t remember the context, but many years ago I was talking with an old college buddy from Brazil. I don’t remember how race came up, but he told me he is white. I didn’t argue with him, but of course I didn’t agree. He’s Brazilian, which is Latino, which by definition isn’t white. It’s a separate check box on those forms.

It’s not only white people who see it that way. When talking shit with my old deported buddies from Colombia, some of them would call me “white boy.” Specifically Pollo and Shorty would say that. And the funny thing is, they are white. Any Colombian would see them that way, as do I. But they grew up in the States in the 80s and 90s, and Latino was its own distinct race. Especially in the prison system.

I don’t see it that way anymore. Over the years I’ve met Peruvians and Colombians who are whiter than me. Well, obviously human skin doesn’t get much whiter than mine. But they’d be as white as me but with lighter-colored hair. Blondes, so whiter.

Racially, Latin America has almost all the colors of the rainbow: white, black, Amerindian, mestizo, mulatto and zambo. In Peru and Brazil there is a lot of Asian blood, but I don’t know what you call those blends. The point is, you can’t just put all those people under one racial umbrella like “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

Latin is a culture, not a race.

Hence if you don’t speak Spanish (or Portuguese), you’re a little less Latin in my book. Maybe not Latin at all.

Do the Latin solidarity people still claim Ted Cruz or Devin Nunes? Of course not. At some point the family line becomes 100% gringo.

On the other side of the coin, “gringo” is also not a race, but a culture. Over the years, you meet products of bi-cultural couples or even pure gringo couples. Some of them are your age or even older, and they grew up down here. These children of immigrants’ English proficiency runs the whole spectrum, from fluent with no accent to “No espeak English.”

When you find one of these guys or girls who speaks English but with a Spanish accent, we expats generally don’t consider them gringos. Of course it depends on how much of an accent they have and where they grew up / went to school, but most of the time they’re not really gringos in our eyes.

That goes both ways. Nobody learned that faster than the deported guys. They grew up in the States as a minority, much more Latin than our monolingual poet. None of them were born in the States so no blue passports, and all of them speak Spanish. Hell, the ones from Miami speak English with a Spanish accent.

Then they landed in Colombia or whatever country they were deported to, after growing up all their lives with a racial identity of “Latino” and being categorized as such by most Americans, and they were called “gringo” by the locals! In their own homeland!

Because they speak English, and when they speak Spanish, but it’s kinda funny. Not local. And they like to eat at McDonald’s, watch basketball or American football and listen to rap music. Gringos.

In every country in the region, there are old gringo last names which have assimilated into the local culture. Some of the famous ones in Peru are Lindley, Ricketts and Bayly (Hispanicized from “Bailey”). I’ve met some of them, and they are 100% Peruvian. Latino, if you will. Nothing gringo left except the last name. The other side of the coin from Ted Cruz.

My own children were on that path, and I was worried. I bought a Smart TV so all their cartoons are in English via Netflix and YouTube. The oldest is starting to speak and he’s about 50-50 English and Spanish, so on his way to fluent, accent-free English if nothing changes.

But I don’t judge any gringo expats down here whose children don’t speak English or don’t speak well … because it’s FUCKING HARD. I’m pretty lucky to work from home. Not only do they get the Smart TV, they talk to me a lot. They hear my American accent. For those gringo expats who don’t work from home, it seems a Herculean task.

So I’d like to personally welcome Mr. Quiñones into Gringolandia. He can keep calling himself Latin if he wants. But the writing is on the wall for his family line. Whenever he marries that big-titted country gringa named Amanda from Nebraska, the little Quiñones will be even less Latin. Until they’re not at all.

BTW, I believe the government’s statistical agencies see it this way now. The “Hispanic / Latino” checkbox is no longer under “Race.” It’s a separate question, and you tick “Yes” or “No.” So people must choose white, black or whatever their race is, and then tick Hispanic if it applies.

See all the comments on the Remezcla post here.

For another interesting look at the opinions of the Remezcla crowd, which certainly doesn’t reflect America’s Latin community in general, but is still worth the rabbit hole, was their post on probably presidential candidate Julian Castro.

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5 comments

  1. True. But then, all the other common racial categories in the US as well aren’t “races” either in the biological sense. White, black, asian etc. There are many significant genetic differences between Portuguese and Fins for example, moroso than between Portuguese and Moroccans.

    “White” and “black” are only vague and historically shifting references to European and African ancestries which were “invented” in the 16th-17th century to make sense of the modern slave industry and which still make some sense today due to historical legacies in that country.

    In a way, it’s not so different with “latinos”. It’s maybe not a biological race, but, it make sense that it is used this way by the Mexican or Boricua diasporas in the US.

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  2. The truth is, if you live in America, you don’t really need Spanish. That’s why the children of immigrants are usually deficient or speak no Spanish at all.

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    1. This is a great discussion. I am from the midwest — Illinois — and I in my childhood I seldom met a person of another race, but when I graduated I moved to California and I was exposed to the world ! But mostly Latino (Hispanic? jajaja) — I’m looking online: CA has 15M Latinos (I don’t know how you qualify — the checkbox?) — 39%. Of course I know Latinas that don’t speak Spanish, many have been assimilating for various amounts of time.

      All this to make my first reply: yes, “if you live in America, you don’t really need Spanish,” but in CA it’s becoming *more* useful — even though many Latinos *don’t* speak Spanish. Go figure.

      Life is, or at least can be, a long and interesting journey. So with a white bread upbringing — beyond gringo, I think — when I return “home” for family events I am amazed at how blindingly white it is. I don’t even have anything more to say about that, except that it’s almost hard to believe — that’s where I was raised, I’m accepted, but it feels so odd.

      FWIW, I have recently been exposed to South American cultures — mostly Colombia and Venezuela — and I can see things mentioned here. I find it interesting how in NA the whites came in, even bringing blacks, and drove out the natives. In SA it wasn’t pretty — Spanish (and Portuguese) became the language(s) — but the bloodlines mixed — a lot. And from my understanding the ‘mixed’ bloodlines (forgive me for not trying to choose a name) are now dominant. My Colombian friend told me that she was “Colombiana,” and had never considered otherwise, or thought more specifically, until I asked her. She decided to ask her parents. (I thought that I was being curious/respectful — but a gringo obsession?)

      Anyway, my other comment: I was a little bit stunned when my Venezuelan friend, talked about being Latina *and* about being black — in the same breath — and not half and half. Who knew?

      I already mentioned that I’m a little bit late to the party — am I ridiculously stupid too? I certainly hope that I haven’t offended anyone — especially my friends!

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      1. In Latin American countries, you are taught to identify with the national culture (or particular region) and not with your color or race. It’s pragmatic in a way because so many are mixed race. In the same family, you may have members who look like they’re from different races. So when Black or White nationalist visit Latin America (from the U.S. usually) they complain that the blacks are not proud of being black, or that the whites are not proud of being white. In a sense they are right, in that race is not the source of their identity or their pride, unlike in America where society can be hyper-racially aware, and hyphen-Americans are the norm.

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  3. Agreed man. From what I understand, Latino encompasses people whose languages come from Latin roots, so Spanish, Portuguese and French-speaking peoples of the western hemisphere (yup, including Haiti and yup, excluding Belize). People of all races are swept up in the “Latino” heading, based less on what their ethnic background is and more on what language is dominant in their country. That’s my understanding, anyway.

    Regarding language and kids, my youngest is a blond-haired green-eyed chele, the whitest kid in Nicaragua probably, and will grow up speaking English with a Texas accent. And I have no doubt he will consider himself 100% Latino, as he should since he is growing up in Central America and his dominant language is Spanish. He goes to school with kids with last names like Chung (from the Asian settlers a century ago) and Downs (from the afro-descended roots on the Caribbean side) and Diriangen (Indigenous Nicaraguan). All latinos. Chinese latinos, black latinos, indigenous latinos and my kid, when the family moves up here to live with me in Texas, will be an American latin american.

    Good post Colin. I still really enjoy your work.

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