HHM: “What are You, Exactly?” and Things to Know about Latinos Like Me

“So… What are you?”

This is always a difficult question. It’s one that, if I don’t really know you, or care to get into it, will elicit something like, “I grew up in East LA, you know, like the Cheech and Chong movies?”

(How often I reduce myself to a punchline in order to make others comfortable in polite company I cannot recall)

If I know you a little and think it’s worth the effort, you will get you some combination of a few carefully rehearsed comments about the First Conquista (Colombus, Cortes, et al.) and the Second Conquista (The Alamo, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ‘Freedom Fighters,’ etc.,) and if you’re lucky maybe I’ll throw in some choice comments about the Third Conquista that we are now living through (Benign neglect, a war on drugs(/Hippies/Black-and-Brown-bodies) and mass incarceration, Gentrification and young White Settlers with wealthy suburban backers/parents, etc.).

With a sigh, I usually have to resign myself to being terminally misunderstood, because each and every fact of history that relates to my identity creates cognitive dissonance with the kind of person that recklessly asks a person, “What are you?” as if you are a different (and inferior) species.

I’ve begun to develop a particular set of coping mechanisms around the ways in which mestizos/indios like me construct our identity, and it was put really well by a back-episode of the Code Switch podcast that I was listening to last week. The episode was about Puerto Rico and the Jones Act, and Natalia Muñoz (Granddaughter of the late great Luis Muñoz Marin, who the street I live on in El Barrio is named after) was sharing her feelings about being an American citizen:

“I feel that I’m in somebody else’s mess [that] I’ve been dragged into…I’ve never considered myself American. I am an American citizen, I am Puerto Rican and I have American citizenship. I have tremendous privilege having that document over someone who has crossed the desert, from wherever they came in Mexico or Latin America or Central America—and I treasure it, but it’s a very complicated feeling. I am a descendant of people who were conquered not once, but twice. First by the Spaniards, we were under their rule for about 400 years, and then under the Americans after the 1898 Spanish-American War. Sometimes I’m an angry Puerto Rican, and sometimes I’m a grateful Puerto Rican. It’s a very difficult relationship that I have with the United States. Nobody asked us, they didn’t ask us when the Jones Act was being written: “Do you guys in Puerto Rico want to be American Citizens because we’re just offering it…” No! So, being in the diaspora is a painful experience. That’s, I think, the bottom line. This is a lifelong, painful experience. It’s a heartbreaking experience that we live with every single day. So far, and yet so close to home.”

No soy Boricua, pero that lady knows what’s up.

Listen guys, the first thing you need to understand about Latinos in the U.S. and beyond is somos diaspora: a people violently dispersed and dispossessed from their heritage and ancestral homelands. With a few extremely rare exceptions, we have all been moved from our original lands, and have been intermingled (often without consent) by European conquerors through rape-pillage-and-sometimes-cannibalization. To say this is a tragic and painful reality that we live with daily is to point out the tip of the iceberg of history.

Not only are we diaspora, we are a multiverse, a sea of galaxies colliding, mixing, melting, and re-forming again. This is the essence of mestizaje, the middle rungs in an elaborate caste system designed by the Spanish to confer various levels of privilege and vulnerability on the indigenous Americans and Africans systematically terrorized and exploited in the Western Hemisphere.

Espanol con India: Mestizo (A Spaniard and an Indian: A Mestizo)

Espanol con Morena: Mulato (A Spaniard and an African: A Mulato)

and so on…

So twisted up were Spaniards in their system of social superiors and inferiors that at various points in history it weakened their colonial profit machines. To entice Spaniards to the new world, the Spanish crown offered titles of nobility to those willing to make the one-way trip. Since Hidalgos (the lowest rung of nobility) did not work in the old world (they had servants for that), they refused to work in the new, and their colonies nearly collapsed. Kidnapping American Indians and Africans and enslaving them was the crown’s solution, which is why they built all those picturesque missions.

Each colonial government had it’s own strategy for effectively subjugating Africans and Indians. Though they all employed the three staples of rape, murder, and kidnapping as methods of assimilating the people that they convinced themselves were not really people. The net result is an ugly rainbow of prejudice and violence cascading down the casta pyramid like the blood of human sacrifice that trickled down the European gallows—I know you were taught that it was those crazy Aztecs who were into human sacrifice, right? Nah, son, Europeans sacrificed hundreds of thousands of their own in the public spectacles that fell under the heading “executions”—petty criminals condemned by a petty society to die a gruesome death in front of a crowd of thousands their cheering neighbors.

Yup, perverting justice and abusing people in the name of “law and order” goes waaaay back…

“History is not the past,” James Baldwin said. “It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

In Mexico (including about a third of what is now the USA), not only did Cortes slaughter the ruling and military classes of the indios (so that he could convert their society into a gold mining colony), he introduced smallpox, which killed between 80 and 90% of the Indians in Mexico. The 1.5M or so that remained were exploited as a peasant labor force under the strict caste system described above, with lots of voluntary and involuntary intermixing in the 18th Century between the Indians, a half million Spaniards, Criollos (Spaniards born in the Americas), and the quarter million African slaves brought to Mexico.

To this day, the Marine Corps Hymn begins with the words “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.” The halls being celebrated are those of Chapultapec Castle, sacred Aztec site and presidential palace at the time. While US Marines occupied Mexico City, Mexico was forced to sign a treaty that ‘sold’ half of their land mass to the US for about $0.04 per acre. Never doubt the lengths to which White folks will go to cut you out of that profitable real estate deal.

My grandfather was Mescalero, a band of the Apache nation of indios living on their ancestral lands in what was Spain’s colony after Cortes, Northern Mexico after the revolucion, and then Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Like my two Mexican grandparents, he didn’t ask to be an American citizen, though he did fight in three wars as a US Marine. Warriors are gonna warrior I guess, they didn’t call us “Guerra” for nothing.

What am I? Indio. Latino. Apache. Chicano.

A disruptive kid from East LA.

A New Yorker who wants to vomit every time you say “You’re Spanish, aren’t you?”

And I guess, since I do speak Spanish, and it’s usually the only box that makes any sense, I’m Hispanic. Native American and Hispanic.

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