Dear Mexican: What’s with calling yourselves “La Raza”? Being Mexicans, Chicanos, or whatever isn’t enough—now you’re “THE Race”? Sounds pretty racist to me. —The Race Is On
Dear Gabacho: Few things annoy the Mexican more than the Know Nothing Nation’s deliberate ignorance with this most nebulous of Mexican idioms. Despite the patient explanations of Chicano yaktivists who say the phrase doesn’t exclusively mean “the race” in Mexican Spanish but is a synonym for “community,” idiot commentators insist that “la raza,” as used by Mexicans, betrays their Reconquista tendencies and alludes to a Mexican sense of racial superiority akin to Nazism and white supremacy. No group gets the brunt of criticism more than the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), one of the largest civil-rights groups in the United States, and one in the news recently because both John McCain and Barack Obama addressed the organization during its recent national convention. Professional pendejos like Michelle Malkin hissed a fit, calling the NCLR seditious and accusing the two presidential candidates of legitimizing hate by visiting them—all this over two Spanish words.
Betcha they’ve never read the primary source from which “la raza” originated—José Vasconcelos’s 1925 booklet, La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race). Vasconcelos—Mexico’s first secretary of public education—wrote his piece as a reaction to the race-thinking of the time, one dominated by the adherents of Social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” prism that placed the gabacho above all people. La Raza Cósmica is a classic work of the prophetic tradition, in which Vasconcelos predicted that humanity would evolve into a fifth race—la raza cósmica, the cosmic race—that would be free of the negative attributes that the four earlier racial groups possessed, and would finally achieve harmonious existence. Crucially, Vasconcelos never stated Mexicans were this race; rather, he wrote that Latin America’s legacy of mestizaje posited “Ibero-Americans” as prime acolytes to spread the gospel of fusion—not through violence, but through “the triumph of fecund love.”It wasn’t until the 1960s Chicano movement that the concept of la raza cósmica gained further followers. Like most things they took from Mexico (food, women, the language), Chicanos corrupted Vasconcelos’s vision, interpreted “la raza” as referring exclusively to Mexicans, and forgot the whole brotherhood bit. “It is true that mestizaje is one of the central concepts of the Vasconcelos essay,” states the introduction to Didier T. Jaén’s excellent translation of La Raza Cósmica, “but, of course, it is also clear that the racial mixture Vasconcelos refers to is much wider, much more encompassing, than what can be understood by the mestizaje of the Mexican or Chicano.” Like Vasconcelos, however, the Chicano definition of “la raza” was rooted in its turbulent time. It was during this era (in 1972) that the organization that preceded the NCLR incorporated the term into its name. But over the decades, the cósmica part of la raza was largely dropped, as was the ethnocentrism—and what remained was merely a benign synonym for Mexicans.People can disagree with the NCLR’s policies—amnesty for illegals, better education for Latinos (not just the Mexis), funding other nonprofits—but to classify them as the Tan Klan because of their name is like a prude getting offended over the name of the titmouse. By the way, haters: Don’t paint me as an NCLR apologist. I think the organization’s president, Janet Murguía, is stupid for trying to get right-wing pundits off the air, mostly because they’re so easy to prove wrong. Besides, the only raza that truly matters is mine: the Nerd race.