Ahora es el momento. A Spanish-speaking president, one who can do more than stumble through a few phrases at a political rally, may be nowhere on the horizon, but for activists like Rosa Clemente, the time to forge a powerful Latino bloc is now.
Even with the latest census showing that some 37 million Latinos now live in the United States—making us by some measures the nation’s new largest minority—we have no place at the political table. For our numbers to mean anything to George Bush or the challengers now vying for the chance to defeat him, we’ll have to find common threads—not an easy task when our first instinct is still to check off the box that says “other.”
“If we as a community that’s being called Latino don’t become racially conscious and don’t begin to identify in racial terms, people will do it for us, and that leaves us with less power,” says Clemente, an activist for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
The idea of a Latino or Hispanic race is almost a necessary fiction in black-versus-white America, where influence hinges on identity. Under the label of Hispanic, first used by the U.S. government in 1973, Dominicans become the same as Argentines and Nicaraguans. In reality, those groups have little to do with one another. When Afro-Latinos mark off “Black, African Am., or Negro” along with Hispanic, the government shoves them into one compartment, essentially telling them they don’t exist. In the narrow view of the United States, they’re Latino, regardless of how they’re perceived when they walk down the street.
And the community is split not just along color lines but on the issue of nationality. “American” is too wide a category for Latinos, who still see themselves primarily as the product of another land. “I would say I’m Puerto Rican, Honduran, and Greek,” says Calixto Chinchilla, executive producer of the New York International Latino Film Festival. “It’s a reflex.”
It doesn’t help that the different nationalities have unresolved, historical beef with each other. Ecuadorans begrudge Peruvians. Puerto Ricans don’t get along with Dominicans. Argentines belittle Uruguayans. Mexicans, now immigrating in droves, have a hard time gaining acceptance by other Latinos because they’re willing to work for lower wages and thus displace those who came before them. That’s much like what happened to the Irish when the Italians showed up. Eventually, these two marginalized adversaries joined forces as “white,” the elite. Perhaps it will be years yet before Latinos accept that they have to move beyond old national identities in order to get in on the debate.
“Sometimes we can be so separatist—but wait a minute, we all speak the same language,” says Chinchilla, who’s more comfortable talking in Spanglish, which is also a way of life. Walk through an immigrant neighborhood, like Jackson Heights in Queens or Washington Heights in Manhattan, and count the phone-booth businesses selling llamadas to Latin America. Check out the restaurant awnings decorated with Mexican or Dominican flags. So often, we live with one foot in this country and the other entrenched someplace else.
Latinos in New York have managed to elect local leaders, even if they’ve had to settle for one gringo mayor after another.
Adolfo Carrion Jr., borough president of the Bronx, which has the highest concentration of Latinos in the city, says he wonders about the “grand prize” his people will get for being named the country’s biggest minority. “That comes with the distinction of being the poorest community, having the lowest educational attainment levels, poor health conditions, and certainly being at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.”
If you break down the numbers, one in three Hispanics is under the age of 18, and those teenagers have the highest dropout rate in the country. Over 36 percent of Latinos lack medical insurance. Hispanics are afflicted by high risks for asthma, hepatitis C, cervical cancer, and HIV/AIDS. In New York City alone, 71.1 percent of Latino children are born into poverty.
In spite of these alarming statistics, or perhaps because of them, Hispanics lack the voz to bring about significant change. The Latino approach to power is in part determined by culture. “Our parents teach us that we cannot demand something, that we have to ask, and if it’s not given to us it’s fine,” says City Council member Margarita Lopez, of Manhattan. “We are not aggressive. We tend to be more laid-back.”
Hispanics, she adds, suffer from “battered-woman syndrome”—meaning that no matter how bad the situation gets, there’s no attempt to escape. If things are bad, that’s just the way they are.
Lopez also counts a history of colonialism in some Latin American countries as an impediment. “We do not stand up and take responsibility for our own future, our own present, and our own destiny,” she says.
You have to know where you came from in order to know where you’re going, and the only point of reference for most Latinos is the countries where they, their parents, or even their grandparents were born. Those links are tightly held, though the larger society seems eager to sever them. “In school, we don’t learn much about ourselves,” says Chinchilla. “I know more about Dr. King and Malcolm X than I know about [Puerto Rican Nationalist] Pedro Albizu Campos. That’s a lack of education that is somewhat dangerous. Unless you go to college and take Latino studies, you’re not going to find out. We’re not part of the curriculum.”
Increasingly, Latino activists are studying the example set by black leaders trying to win equality. “We have to say thank you to the African American community and the African American struggle,” says Lopez. “We have to kiss the floor on which Martin Luther King walked, because it was them who put the struggle for civil rights out there, and it was them who framed the issue clearly.”
African Americans and Latinos share many of the same problems, Clemente argues. She rattles them off: “Economic oppression. Economic exploitation. Police brutality. Lack of housing. Lack of access to health care. Lack of access to education.”
The black and Latino struggles may be much the same, but key disparities separate the groups. African Americans were forced to come to this country, and most Latinos came of their own volition. There is no single event in the history of Hispanics here as poignant or as unifying as slavery. That’s not to say Latin America didn’t participate in the slave trade—some countries did. What Latinos do have, though, is a history of internal struggle with classism, sexism, and racism. In some cases, Latinos have held that the only way to “better the race” is to marry someone lighter skinned. We’ve got our own “paper bag” test.
The preoccupation with differences, both among different Latinos and among our natural allies, has frustrated attempts to form an agenda. While we worry about whose country is better or skin fairer, decision-making power where we live remains in the hands of white men. The absence of Latinos in high elected offices has nothing to do with apathy. “In many places in South America, voting is not a right, it’s an obligation,” says Santiago Bonilla, a community reporter for Hoy, one of the city’s most widely read Spanish-language newspapers. “By nature, we do have an interest in politics.”
But when politicians don’t show an interest in us—when Governor George Pataki, for example, is content to win our support by calling himself an “amigo” and then fights against better funding for the city’s public schools—they push us to the sidelines. And for too many sons and daughters of disenfranchised immigrants, these conditions have lasted so long that anything else seems unattainable.
You can hear the roar of the elevated No. 7 train from Pilar and Julio’s apartment. They share this a one-bedroom place in Elmhurst, having moved from a nice house on the semi-tranquil Caribbean coast of Colombia a year and a half ago. They came for opportunity. Now the former licensed aesthetician washes hair in a salon, while her husband, a former director of sales and distribution for a major retail chain, makes deliveries for a local shop.
Pilar has applied for citizenship, though she has been told to expect a wait of almost two years. “Before we came here, we wanted to open our own business,” she says. “If we go back now, we will have been beaten.”
Much of the Latino hope rests with the younger generation, with those who at least have the benefit of having been born as American citizens. “Wait till you see what I can do, and I’m a Latino,” says Max Amparo, a 17-year-old aspiring rap artist and record producer. “I’m not trying to make a big change in the world but at least between the people that I walk around every day.”
Amparo recently got out of the Campos projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, looking for something better. “I know a lot of chicks feelin’ him, five-six, brown eyes, and pure Dominican,” he rhymes, obviously proud of his heritage.
He and his peers still contend with tired stereotypes. “In the movies, they portray us as drug dealers, dishwashers, wetbacks,” says 18-year-old Jose Luis Moreno, a freshman at John Jay College. “They don’t think a Latino can be very successful.”
Young Latinos are working to counter that notion, and to consider, on a greater scale, what it means to be Latino in the United States. On MiGente.com, a community-based site, their inquiries find a forum. One asks, are Puerto Ricans and blacks a lot alike? Do you get accused of not being “Latino enough”? What’s the difference between Hispanic and Latino? If you could nominate a Latino for president, who would it be? Can we achieve unity without an all-encompassing cause?
In answer to the last question, the overall outlook seems positive. Perhaps the United States is the place where Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar’s dream of unity based on a common Hispanic heritage will become a reality. Listen to the responses on MiGente:
“The differences that exist within the ‘Latino’ community are the mechanisms for getting changes made.”
“They need to serve as a catalyst to bring people together and fully address issues that plague minority communities.”
“If you tell yourself unity is impossible, it’ll never happen.”
“Yes, we are called Spanish or Latino, but that does not say who we are.”
“Today all of Latin America—white, black, and indigenous—faces similar challenges, be they political, economic or social. That alone should call for their unification.”
“Unity of any underprivileged or disenfranchised group en masse is a revolution. Such a revolution becomes a threat to the status quo and to the influence of those in power.”
Can Latinos find a new power in numbers? Obviously, we’d like to believe so. As the fastest-growing segment of the population, we can only claim our rightful place if we step forward and join African Americans as people of color. Because at the end of the day, no matter our shade, the system writes us off as “nonwhite.” La revolución es nuestra, y ahora es el momento.
“Minority Report: Why White America Would Rather Learn Spanish Than Ebonics” by Ta-Nehisi Coates