American Family Home
American Family

Who is a Chicano?

  Watch the Video

At the Crossroads:
Latinos in the New Millennium

by Rubén Martínez

Ruben Martinez
Rubén Martínez

It is the blessing and bane of my life as a writer that I am often called upon to explain – to others, to “my” community, to myself – just what is means to be “Latino.” Such an endeavor would be unnecessary in my mother’s El Salvador or my father’s Mexico; Salvadorans and Mexicans don’t have to explain themselves to anyone – they’re Salvadorans and Mexicans, period; they’ve got other things to worry about, like general strikes and monetary devaluations.

But I was born and raised in Los Angeles of immigrant parents and my family’s sense of place, somewhere in between the Old World and the New, has become the narrative of my life. Living in-between tacos and pupusas, rock and merengue, and Spanish and English has been an exhilarating journey. The problem is that living in-between also means that you can be misunderstood by people on either side of you.

Hollywood always had me pegged as a Mexican…a greaser…a bandit…a Latin Lover…a Ricky Ricardo. Even in polite, literary circles, my ethnicity comes before any other intellectual or cultural identifiers. There is a canon of “Western” literature in the United States, but I am not considered a Western writer. I’m not a “California” writer, either, not even an American writer. I am a Latino writer, a mantle that I embrace and reject at the same time, because I feel that I’m as influenced by Walt Whitman as I am by Pablo Neruda.

In Latin America, ironically, I am not seen as a “Latino” or Latin American at all. I am, to my Mexican and Central American colleagues, just another “American” writer. No matter that I speak Spanish, have brown skin and parents from the Old World. So I’m branded a gringo where I don’t want to be one, and where I want to be one, I’m rejected. Denied my in-between-ness by both sides, as it were.

* * *

Hyphenated America: land of Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Salvadoran-Americans. The hyphenated identity has deep roots in American racial and ethnic history, going as far back as the colonial period. The early settlers were British subjects – overwhelmingly English and Scottish. In some ways, they were the “Chicanos” of their day. On the one hand, they were conscious of their imperial pedigree and that they were the vanguard of a colonial project. But many had also been persecuted in the homeland for their religious beliefs. Neither could they claim much identification with their ultimate “Other” – the Native Americans. In other words, they could feel as colonizers and colonized simultaneously.

The problem is that living in-between also means that you can be misunderstood by people on either side of you.

This ambivalence was institutionalized shortly after the Revolution. Africans, of course, were not considered full-fledged human beings, and the Naturalization Act of 1790 deemed that only white European immigrants could claim full American citizenship (parts of this legislation were ameliorated by the 14th Amendment, but other elements were left intact until the 1950s).

The arrival of African slaves and waves of new immigrants from Southern Europe, Asia and Latin America over the last 200 years has re-opened the primordial wound of American identity again and again. Practically without exception, each group of newcomers was subjected to intense xenophobic discrimination. America’s famously vulgar – and vast – lexicon of racial and ethnic epithets is even today a reminder of this history. The result of this “othering,” in addition to the natural tendency of immigrant groups to come together in enclaves of ethnic solidarity in their new home, is the hyphenated identity: a sign of both belonging and not-belonging, of Old World origins and New World influences mixing together. Indeed, this very tension is at the heart of the notion of the “melting pot,” that ambiguous term that even today many Americans invoke as their cultural creed.

This is the context in which Latinos must be considered as yet another hyphenated identity – but there are obvious and crucial distinctions to be made. The majority of Latinos are of Mexican descent because the U.S. shares a border with Mexico and because the better part of the Western United States was Mexican territory until 1848. Overnight, Mexicans became immigrants; suddenly, they were Mexican-Americans and automatically relegated to the social space assigned to the recently-arrived: the bottom of the ladder. Nevertheless, Mexicans in the U.S. were never slaves, and so their historical place cannot be accurately compared with African-Americans, as some activists would have it. But neither can we compare them to the Irish or the Poles and the rest of that motley crew from Europe. These were stirred into the melting pot because the pot is as much an economic symbol as it as a cultural one: Huge numbers of the second or third generation progeny of the European immigrants of the early 20th century gained entry into the middle class. Most African-Americans, many Asian-Americans and a majority of Mexican-Americans did not.

If we are to believe the rhetoric about America, the “classless society,” then the only explanation for this racialized economic fact of life would be Social Darwinism: The ones who don't “make it” just don't have what it takes.

If we are to believe the rhetoric about America, the “classless society,” then the only explanation for this racialized economic fact of life would be Social Darwinism: The ones who don’t “make it” just don’t have what it takes. And such explanations, although now officially “politically incorrect,” still echo through American public discourse and policy. One need look no further than to the dismantling of affirmative action programs over the last decade: The fundamental argument behind this revision of civil rights history is that there is indeed a “level playing field” already and thus “special treatment” of certain groups is unnecessary. If “they” don’t make it without affirmative action…then “they” just don’t have what it takes.

But there is another explanation, one that invokes “class,” in tandem with “race,” as an inevitable fact of capitalist democracy. Nearly all immigrants in American history have occupied menial jobs that in and of themselves cannot possibly offer social mobility. Education has always been the factor that determines whether an immigrant, or an immigrant’s children, “move up.” Individual ambition counts for a lot in America – but so does having the skills and the language necessary to enter a competitive job market. The fact is that each immigrant arrives on American shores with different levels of education; and the American public school system is amazingly inconsistent at offering precisely what children need to realize their dreams as adults. Everyone knows that the proportion of kids from Beverly Hills High that go on to college is much higher than at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. And we all know where the resources are better – where the teachers receive higher salaries, where there are enough text books and computers to go around, where there are a plethora of extracurricular activities. So much for the “even playing field.”

And yet as a society we still indulge such retrograde notions as the “culture of poverty,” a term coined in the 1950s by the otherwise liberal anthropologist Oscar Lewis, which holds that even if we did offer every child the exact same educational resources, the child of poverty would likely remain poor because, well, it’s in his “culture.” In this way, stereotypes form, whether of the “lazy” Mexican (underdeveloped tropical country!) or of the model-minority Asian student (Confucian culture clearly makes for better students!).

Having pride in one’s Old World culture is one thing; questioning the underlying causes of endemic poverty in one’s community is quite another.

Simply, we continue to confuse the terms “culture” and “class” in a kind of political shell game that guarantees an ample supply of cheap labor. And Latinos in the U.S. often fall into the trap. Feeling the sting of having been branded by cultural stereotype, much of the political organizing among young Mexican-Americans over the last 40 years has been decidedly “nationalist” in nature, invoking the greatness of the primordial Mexican culture – that is, Aztec history – as a salve against white supremacy. Having pride in one’s Old World culture is one thing; questioning the underlying causes of endemic poverty in one’s community is quite another. The truly great political moments have been where activists have conceived intersections between culture and class, like having standards bearing the likeness of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s Catholic patroness, at the head of marches staged by migrant farmworkers seeking better working conditions.

Interestingly, the immigrants among Latinos are those most likely to focus on issues of class inequity, rather than the culture wars that Mexican-Americans have so famously engaged over the years. This is clearly a product of having grown up in the Old World, where economic castes are the source of most political tension. My point here is not that Mexican-Americans have barked up the wrong political tree all this time. Rather, that the second and third generations have much to learn from the immigrants, and vice versa. In colonial and post-colonial history, people have used race to justify class, and class to justify race. The contradiction has reached its apotheosis in America, precisely because we were supposed to be an exception to the Old World in terms of class, and democratic idealism holds that we are indeed all created equal.

And our culture continues to grow on this side of the border, finding new modes of expression as it mixes and matches with the rest of America’s pop.

And so Mexican Americans, along with working-class Caribbeans and, increasingly, Central Americans, are an example of both what is great about America and what is terribly wrong at the same time. Despite the obstacles, Latinos have achieved much in the U.S. This community has offered heroes of all kinds, from a César Chávez in the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley to the nameless Chicanos that have fought valiantly in the American military ever since World War II. And our culture continues to grow on this side of the border, finding new modes of expression as it mixes and matches with the rest of America’s pop.

Latinos in the U.S. are clearly at a crossroads today – economically, politically, culturally. Census 2000 counts us as the largest “minority” group in the U.S.; among the foreign-born (who are a higher percentage of the overall population today than at any other time since the early 20th century), we are the vast majority. In addition, our population is no longer concentrated in the Southwest. We are spread across America, with a presence in every major city and even in hundreds of small heartland towns. We are present in the cultural mainstream as well. Latino personalities – Carlos Santana, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin – are the pop rage. In places like California, a modicum of political power has arrived: There is a new class of Latino elected officials at all levels of government, from city halls to the House of Representatives.

But none of these signs guarantee that this community will rise above the history of discrimination and ghetto-ization that has characterized it for the last century and a half in America. As I write these words, anti-immigrant activists in Anaheim, California, take to the streets demanding deportation of the “illegals.” Public education in the inner city, where most Latinos live, is still inferior. Stereotypical characters still stain our image on Hollywood’s screens, and on the nightly news, we still play the usual roles of gangbangers and drug lords.

Latinos have the opportunity to play a hugely important political role in the coming years, as America grows into its new self – it’s new, non-white majority self. We can play the role of bridge-builders, bring back to politics coalitions not merely of convenience but based on the moral integrity of solidarity – reaching out to the Other, recognizing ourselves in the face that resembles us the least. If we are honest with ourselves, that is indeed the role we will play. Because we have always lived in-between.

Rubén Martínez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. He is the author of Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail (Metropolitan/Holt) and The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond (Vintage).

© 2004 Public Broadcasting Service. All Rights Reserved.