Monday, December 19, 2005

Latino Is, Latino Ain't

From a certain perspective, I don’t do a good job of living up to expectations about being Latino. In most of the U.S., racial identities start with visual cues. Since I am of mixed ancestry (Have I ever mentioned that? It seems like I intended to say that at some point...), my Irish and Mexican features seem too sharply blended.

Depending on my current location, some feel at liberty to offer (unsolicited) observations about my appearance. “Oh,” some will say, “You are Latino? I thought you were Italian!”

Or: “Yeah, it makes sense that you are Latino. You look like a conquistador.” This one seems kinda scary to me. Perhaps, though, I shouldn’t wear that suit of armor so often.

A more perplexing response, though, goes, “I knew it! It’s your eyebrows!” Who knew that Latino folk have a distinctive eyebrow look?

One overly amorous Latino suitor once called me “A bronze Aztec god.” Either he was drunk, blind, or delusional (I was also much younger then). My skin can be as pale as a bottle of milk in the winter.

Appearance, though, isn’t the only thing that throws people off. Here is a true confession: My Spanish sucks. After several generations in the U.S., my father’s parents decided that being bilingual would mark their children with a disadvantage. Like many Mexican Americans of their generation, they hoped that English-only would speed Latinos’ incorporation into the mainstream U.S. (It didn’t, fyi). I regret their decision given my job. Having better Spanish skills is really, really, really important. Darn them! Of course, I am also really, really, really lazy about improving my Spanish as well. Eh – It’s on my to-do list.

Finally, my ability to become a Mexican house-frau is seriously questionable. Though I love every Mexican dish my family prepares, I lack an ability to cook. It’s not because I don’t try, either. I spent many hours watching my grandmother prepare fantastic meals. My grandmother’s tortillas always turned out like light, fluffy puffs of blissful dough. Even my father can do some pretty swift things in the kitchen.

My stiff, hard tortillas could replace the hubcaps on my car. Even the Anglo Ex eventually prepared a better red chile sauce than me. That really hurt! True, he cheated in his preparation, but my red chile sauce has an uncanny mud taste.

So, why bring up my mixed visage, pitiful language skills, and culinary handicap? It’s not that I doubt my status as Latino. On the contrary, growing up in New Mexico, surrounded almost entirely by other Latino folk, it was an unquestioned part of my basic identity. Yeah, my sisters and I were of mixed ancestry (I swear I meant to mention that), but within the particular circumstances of New Mexico, that mattered little. I didn’t (and still don’t) think of my identity as either obscure or nebulous.

It wasn’t until I moved to other parts of the U.S. that suddenly my racial identity became radically important. Being of mixed ancestry occasionally throws people, but, in the end, the U.S. operates on monolithic assumptions about race. Millions of Latinos currently live in the U.S. While we share some common experiences, not one of our lives could be interchanged with another.

Yet, many Euro Americans, and even some professors of color, make presumptions about my background based only on assumptions about my name and origin. Some have laid negative stereotypes on to me, like a supposed cultural tendency toward a lack of ambition.

More often, though, my status as Latino comes into play as a means for some individuals to dismiss me. “Oh, sure,” they will say amongst themselves, “Of course GayProf wants the department to have a nondiscrimination clause. He is Latino! AND Gay!”

In these cases, it is not that I could, just as a human, be interested in issues of Social Justice. Rather, any position I advocate is always suspect because they perceive me as having a self-interested position. When straight, Euro-American men advocate for these types of issues, they are generous and charitable. When I advocate for these issues, I am operating out of greed or self-preservation.

What occurs to me, though, is that they are partially right, even if they ascribe the wrong motivations. It is because I identify as a gay, Latino that I have such an interest in Social Justice issues. Seeing first hand how power works in terms of race, gender, and sexuality has made me skeptical about this society.

All of us with identities that fall outside of the established hierarchy (those who are not straight, narrow-minded, Anglo, and male) need to consider our potential as visionaries for a new cultural order. We can be cultural guerrilla warriors. None of us fully satisfy the stereotypes of our racial, gender, and sexual identities. Naming our divergences shakes apart the static markers of difference. Likewise, shared differences unite us, granting us a more complex perception of dominant society.

Our unique visions can make a better life for everybody and end the stratification in our society. Let us build on our experiences and challenge the status quo.


Adam said...

You know I am really angry that my parents never taught me Italian. My mom speaks mainland and my dad speaks Sicilian dialect. They werent born here and they were taught by their grandparents. I never asked them why they didn't teach me.

Roger Owen Green said...

I'm sure I relate to social justice issues becausdee I'm black. But I do think it's made me more sensitive to discrimation against the other "others": women, and yes, Latinos and gays. Or I hope so.

BTW, the last two letters in the word verification is TX (as in Texas), FWIW.

Knute123 said...

I've noticed as I get older I am much more socially aware. As a woman I have begun to see oppressive practices everywhere...stuff I assumed had long since died out when I was a child. I really grew up thinking everything was 100% equal (with a few exceptions).

It definately makes me more sensitive to the issues of my gender and minorities. How could it not? Like you said, seeing it first hand creates skepticism.

By the way, I love this line: "Naming our divergences shakes apart the static markers of difference."

That is brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Being of mixed Indian and (Irish, Italian, Burmese, Portuguese) stock I can definitely relate to what you say. I'm relatively light skinned, have green eyes - a member of my faculty felt quite reasonably said to my face, "I don't know how you can claim an indian heritage. You're obviously just a white australian"...hmmm.
I've become very very tired of dinner parties with academics, of being the only token-ethnic, non-old-school-tie-wearing, homo-sexual at the table and having to listen to the utterly shite opinions they can invent about race and sexuality.

GayProf said...


It sounds like we attend the same dinner parties.

Anonymous said...

"...need to consider our potential as visionaries for a new cultural order"

Bravo and I couldn't agree more!

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