Being Mestizo in the United States

The question of identity is a question that brings up severe panic in me. Questions like “what are you?” only serve to reinforce the idea that I’m different. People, regardless of race, treat me as some sort of museum piece. American racial classification demand simplification ignoring the complexities of mixed-race people like myself. The primary reason why I obsess over my racial identity is that I don’t have the same access to the traditional useful constructs of race. I’m described as racially ambiguous by the public at large. I expect very little from the United States — a country that decided to lump me into the all encompassing title of “Latino” and “Hispanic.” These two labels inherently ignore my racial makeup. My identity is attached to a monolithic group which simply does not exist.

Being Mestizo is like being caught in between two worlds. My left foot rests firmly in the cobble streets of Europe while the other is barefoot, soaking the earth beneath me like a sponge in Latin America.  The problem is that I can’t claim either one. Being an American Mestizo is a marker for my two identities; the benevolent (Native American) and the wicked (Spanish/European). I’m neither white nor Indigenous. I’m an amalgamation of both, but my understandings of these two identities are weakened because of the dominance of American culture.

Thinking about these matters has challenged me as a Latino. It’s made my life harder and confusing but much more rewarding. For instance, I’m in a constant search for my Indigenety, but how exactly do I fit into that being a mixed-race American? Being Indigenous in Latin America brings fourth an array of cultural and racial characteristics that has gone under very little fusion when compared to the dominance of Mestizaje. The way Indigenous is defined in South America and the Caribbean differs greatly in the sense of its unsullied culture and identity.  One relies on their Indigeneity by mixture while the other puts emphases on language and culture not so easily found in dominant (mixed) Mestizo society. The way Indigeneity is looked at gives me a better understanding into how cultures develop their ties with their native past, but it also confuses me and my sense of identity. Some people use their Indigeneity to absolve undesirable verities found within their own racial identity (usually anti-blackness). Even within Latin America there is no clear cut definition of Mestizo and Indigenous. Sometimes the way you look depletes your racial makeup, affecting the way society ultimately treats you.

In what public discourse does the reference of mixed-race people exist? America is still trying to figure out how to handle the complexities of white and black. My features, however, are a product of mixture. My eyes, the color of my hair, my yellow undertone all contributes to a fusion that has created someone who’s not so easily identifiable, yet in the United States my race is not counted. Race can be a fragile topic for many. It’s a complex system that can easily damage one’s identity, and once that identity is damaged, it can’t be so easily restored.

There is no movement up for Latinos that is not accompanied by the issue of race. We sometimes choose to ignore the elephant in the room in favor for solidarity; however, ignoring such issues will only serve to exacerbate a problem that has existed since colonial times. My two identities circle my mind creating a twister that no doubt will destroy my very being. I become obsessed in examining my race and culture, wondering which label best describes me as a person.  I try to cause a sensation using Mestizo as bait, exploiting it to clarify my racial relationship to myself and others. What I think and do is already put into practice with how I handle my complex emotions on topics that mean so dear to me that I sometimes unknowingly end up sacrificing my mental health for.

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Why Do You Wear So Much Black?

I’m not sure why I wear so much black. I do, however, know the reasons why I don’t. It’s not because of some rebellious angst, and it’s definitely not because I associate myself with a particular subculture. Politically, black represents my solidarity with the lower-class and their daily struggles in life. I wear black as a political statement. Black is a reminder that no matter where I live or who I’m with – I’m always thinking about the little Mexican women selling ices in the summer, the elderly Asian women collecting cans, the single mothers living in the projects, the LGBT teens living on the streets, the black men getting shot by the police. These are the people who rasied me. These are the people I don’t want to forget. Not a moment goes by that I’m not thinking about where I come from and who I fight for.

In the language of fashion, black can be described as simple. Yohiji Yamamoto, a Japanese fashion designer famously dubbed “The Poet of Black”, makes many references to why black is important to him in his clothing. I like to call his dingy vintage look of modesty as “serene organized roughness,” which admittedly is a fancy way of saying I’m fuckin’ lazy. There is some truth in Yamamoto’s careless play with gender. Black, at least to me, is androgynous – wearing clothing that isn’t attached to a particular gender is important to me, and the color that most represents that is black. My uniform, which is probably the most appropriate way to describe my style because of the consistency of my daily clothing of big black t-shirts, black jeans, and black boots are not reflective of my personality. It’s easy to attach bleakness to my attire. To say black is representative of my emotions is a non sequitur.

Black is transformative. Because I’m lazy, black affords me the privilege of looking decent for any occasion.  It also always manages to hide me from public view. I blend in and never draw any unwanted attention. I hate being the center of attention, so wearing black is like having the Cloak of Invisibility over me. It allows me to navigate spaces without much problem. People walk by as if I’m not even there. It’s not that I love or hate black – I just find the color convenient.

Looking back, I guess do have an answer, but it’s not something I consciously think about. It’s just sort of happened.

American White Culture

Understanding The “Lack Of Culture”

To the surprise of many, not all European immigrants in the United States were considered white. Many adopted an idealized whiteness that developed into an abandonment of language and culture. We’ve all heard it before; “white people don’t have culture” is not an exaggeration of lies, but a response to the handicaps of white supremacy.

The acceptance of banal culture is essential for admittance into Anglo America. An identity that many whites struggled to fit into. A perfect example of this cultural dereliction is the Italian-American experience. For many years, Italian-Americans were not considered white in the eyes of America’s flimsy definition of race and ethnicity. In many ways they mirrored the experience of Latinos. The similarities between the two revolved around illegal immigration, “refusal” to learn English, affiliation with organized crime, dark features, and Catholicism.  They were seen as “foreigners” who didn’t assimilate well into American society. This all changed after World War II, when whiteness evolved to included them. Once the doors to whiteness were open, many rushed in leaving their culture and language behind and becoming “American Whites.” This dilatation of ethnic heritage can be seen by the responses we often hear from American whites who don’t quite know where their family is from. It’s always “a little bit of Russian and maybe some Italian and German” but never anything concrete.

This “lack of culture” obviously has a connection to cultural appropriation, which American Anglo culture has no problem doing as long as it erases the people who created it. Just look at popular culture, the way we dress, the music we listen to is largely because of black culture – everything from Rock to Hip-Hop has been taken away and deodorized as simply “American” – removing any cultural connection it has to its creators. As a result, American white culture (or the lack thereof) must take what others do and claim it for itself.

As people of color, we’ve made it our mission to balance the two. Biculturalism is essential to many immigrants from Latin America and Asia. The idea of American whiteness is something I always wanted to be a part of. I considered it something I needed to achieve to fully become “American.” Myself and other children of Immigrants hated our bilingualism and tried our very best to fit in within a constructed identity that we never could possibly achieve.  I always found my culture to be a burden and wanted to be like my white classmates and be part of something that was deemed safe. An identity that didn’t raise any questions was ideal for kids who grew up translating for their parents (in my case it was my father). Having not to explain the “oddities” of our culture and just be accepted is what I wanted. I was embarrassed that my mother, who spoke fluent English, spoke with a heavy accent.  This all contributed to the idea that I had to remove myself as far away from my parent’s culture as possible. I had to twist my identity to better fit with what the ideals of American whiteness were; even though I’m not white – I had to act like one and remove myself from my parent’s ethnic heritage.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I started to accept and embrace my identity as a Latino. Looking back at how I acted to my parents is a bit cringe worthy because I, like many children of immigrants, fell into the trap of American white culture. It’s a bullshit concept that has no space for fusion, and favors simplicity over the nuances found within an ethnic identity.

How Do You Define Brownness?

I never really identified with any color. As a teen, I saw myself as a chameleon navigating spaces at will without much hassle.  My yellow undertone made my skin color difficult to pin down.  It can change drastically in a few hours, depending on the time of day and weather.

Some Latinos, despite skin color, are identifying as brown. This brings up some interesting questions about brown’s connection to race and culture. Latinos are one the most diverse people in the world – we are a myriad of races. labeling, or perhaps generalizing, Latinos as simply brown doesn’t really work from a racial standpoint. Brown is define, from my understanding, as anyone not black, white, or Asian. It’s an exclusive color we’ve claimed for ourselves but is ultimately handicapped by our various shades, and that’s in addition to Latinos being Black, White, Asian, etc.

According to the U.S. census, Arabs/Middle Easterns are “white.” (just for the record, Middle Easterners come in all colors).  For example, a white family from Northern Iraq or Syria is white only by the fairness of the skin. Their culture (which also includes language and religion) cements their position into brownness, but where does the line between brownness start and end? Who defines brownness? Brownness is amorphous depending on regional context. One of the many lies of white supremacy is the myth that fair skin, light eyes, and soft hair are features exclusive to Europe. This is complete bullshit. However, many people of color in the United States believe the narrative of exclusivity whiteness.  I’ve written about brownness before in regards to Spanish names. It’s the reason someone like George Zimmerman was treated as White by the media despite him looking like the majority of Latinos (he looks like a typical Mestizo). Within the context of the U.S., our relationship to brownness – whether we’re actually brown or not – is connected to language (which itself is a romance language with heavy Arabic influence). The racialization of the Spanish language in the U.S. has involuntarily connected Spanish-speaking people with an assigned skin color.

Brown’s affiliation with Latino culture is a reaction to whiteness. Spanish colonialism has resulted in a hierarchy based on mixture and skin color where one’s association to brownness is not only racial but cultural as well. However, this opens up issues of colorism. Who “really” is brown? What counts as brown? Can a white woman from Chile of German decent claim brownness if she moved to the U.S.? Of course not! But her culture and language will come into question in regards to her relationship to brownness. To me, all of this seems too simple. Brown is used as way to highlight our indigenous heritage regardless of skin color, but brown can describe many people from around the world. Skin color and culture are clashing and the lines of browness are being blurred as a result. Brown is amorphous and ambiguous, and it seems everyone has a diffrent definition of it; because skin color is only the start to a much deeper discussion.

How I Became Latino

When I was in the 4th grade I asked my ELA teacher Mrs. Cohen if I could use the restroom.  She told me to wait until another student came back from office duties. After 6 minutes, the student arrived and Mrs. Cohen handed me the hall pass; a wooden plank that had our room number painted in faded white.  According to school rules, students had to go to the restroom in pairs. Now, I don’t remember my partner’s name. I could have easily just made something up and pass it as historical fact. I mean, who of you are going to know? Anyway, because I am a man of integrity, I’ll call the kid Jim.

Jim and I decided to go to the restroom on the first floor as way to elongate the process of going back to class. Everyone I knew did this and the teachers seem to not care. As we took the back staircase up to the third floor, Jim asked if there was anyone I liked in class. I was honest and answered his question without hesitation. The name to leave my mouth stopped him at an instant and time froze for a brief moment. He looked at me with a blank face and said, “You can’t like her. You’re white.”

That was the beginning of a myriad of comments that followed that year and what jumpstarted my interest in Latino identity.

To get the obvious out of the way. No, I am not a white Latino – not even a white passing one.  My slanted eyes, yellow undertone, and straight black hair confuse many people into thinking I’m Filipino or “some type of Asian” (which is usually their way of saying that I must be mixed with Asian). The best guess I can come up with for why Jim called me white was because I was one of the few students in my class who wasn’t black (including afro-Latinos). Kids take things literally and I’m guessing Jim saw I was the lightest one in class. He put two and two together and assumed I was white.

As an Ecuadorian, I’m part of a group that’s more or less invisible in New York (let’s be real here, we’re invisible in the United States in general. Our only claim to fame is Christina Aguilera). The word Latino in the states brings up images of Mexico and the Caribbean, sunny skies and warm weather are synonymous with Latin identity.

The following year in 5th grade, my identity was challenged again, but this time by other Latinos. The influx of dark skin Dominicans in my elementary school made it their mission to treat me like an outcast. To one kid, I wasn’t “Spanish” enough; and to another my lack of athletic skills determined which racial group I belong to. Day after day they would strip me away from my identity and tell me why I should stop lying to myself and accept the fact that I was “Chino.” I would later adopt this policing of identities until I realized that I was using it as a cheap shot to “win” arguments and hurt others as much as possible. Because of this, I for the longest time resented Dominicans. I hated them for all their worth. I had no problem voicing my dislike and made no attempts at redemption. I would actively make fun of their dialect and how “badly” they spoke Spanish. This was all in response to the insults I was assaulted with as a kid. It was so bad that I would wish I had darker skin and curlier hair to fit in. I used to pray that my birthmark on my left hand would grow and engulf my entire body. It wasn’t until I was in middle-school that I met more people from South America (Latinos of all colors) and realized how privileged I was compared to dark skin Dominicans.

I know it sounds a bit ridiculous that in elementary school race was talked about so casually among children. Race and colorism is an important aspect in our lives, even at ages 8 and 9. As People of color we are never not aware of our placement in society, no matter what age we are. Unsurprisingly most of our teachers avoided the topic and made an effort to stop any and all discussions about it. Imagine how uncomfortable it must be to be put on the spot by a bunch of 9-year-olds!

Children are observant. They might not understand the reasoning behind our societal quirks, but they very much know when something is, for a lack of a better word, off. I remember when I was 5-years-old, my father would take me to a small family-owned Peruvian restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens. At that impressionable age, I saw people who looked Asian but spoke fluent Spanish. My father ordered in Spanish and the waiters would talk among themselves in Cantonese. I put these facts together and naturally assumed all Asians spoke Spanish. My assumption was obviously wrong, but that was my catalyst to exploring the nuances of Latino identity. Eventually, I started calling the place “La Chifa” – Chifa being Chinese-Peruvian cuisine. I was confused as to how I was lumped in with a group I had nothing but surface level similarity with. My father said they were just like us, Latinos, but I couldn’t get it out of my head just how different they were.

My story, the story (if you can call it that) of how I became Latino, started after high school. Frustrated with my lack of identity and having others, who really knew jack shit about my life, assign it to me. I used it to study and look up what the hell a Latino even is. I had to do this on my own and without the help of my family (unlike “traditional” Latino families, we’re very much individualists. Families from both my mother and father side are practically nonexistent). I didn’t become a Latino overnight. It involved deep soul searching asking questions like what race I was and deciding what fucking label best described me. Was I Mestizo? Ecuadorian? Or just another gringo? Culturally I was stuck in between two worlds that were at odds with each other and I never quite felt comfortable with either one of them.  I would obsessed over these thoughts well into college, and even now I can’t say with any certainty just what exactly I am as I’m starting to reject the label I fought so hard to be a part of. Everything is swirling back to my start; the start of uncertainty, and as I continue to learn about Latino identities, I’m growing more and more comfortable with rejecting them and being at peace with simply not knowing – and you know what? I’m okay with that.

Latino Diversity

People immigrate for a myriad of reasons.  Contrary to popular belief, many immigrants practice biculturality. They assimilate while preserving their cultural heritage. This fusion can be seen in a country’s language, food, and music – a testament to a fluid identity.  A nation’s ethnic history can be defined by its gastronomy. The influx of indigenous, Spanish, Italian, African, Chinese, and Japanese influences in Peruvian food, particularly Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese cuisine), the food my father and I would eat every Sunday at a local restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, is a delicious and colorful history book of cultural fusion. Latinos regardless of race and nationality, are united under a Latin American identity that’s amorphous by its very nature.

Latino identity is already in itself a fusion of cultures. Spanish colonialism resulted in a mix of European, Indigenous, and African. Whether it’s racial depends largely on the individual, but culturally there’s no doubt on its impact. The myth that Latin America is monolithic is something that is perpetuated by the U.S. media, and yes, at times, Latino themselves. What many seem to lack is a realization that there are other countries in the Americas that share the same diasporic history as the United States. The people of Latin America, from south to north, are of a variety of races, languages, and ethnic group – making Latin America one of the most diverse places in the world.

Here are a few quick facts:

The largest Japanese population outside of Japan is in Brazil.

The first Asian president (of Japanese decent) in the western world was in Peru.

Brazil is home to the largest black population outside of Africa.

The second largest Italian immigration in the “new world” was in Latin America (which is why southern South America speaks a dialect called Rioplatense Spanish).

The largest Jewish community in Latin America is in Argentina.

28% of Bolivians speak Quechua  (the country has 36 official languages).

The Guaraní language is generally understood by 95% of Paraguay’s population.

As America has proven time and time again, the desire to label and simplify Latinos are in line with America’s notion of race. It’s no secret that we Latinos “complicate” the discussion of race simply because we aren’t one. Because Latino encompass many diffrent races, the issue of colorism becomes a problem. Anti-blackness is a direct result of colonization and privilege is given to those who are either white or white passing. This only severs to further complicate the discourse. Not being able to pin down a group that is so inconsistent with color, language (yes, Spanish is not the only language spoken in Latin America), and culture takes a toll on a country that prefers repetition over variety. A country in which the struggles of black and white are still apparent, and would rather make certain people invisible in order to place bumpers on the process of racial and cultural reform.

Let’s Have a (Very) Brief Talk About Colorblindness

To be colorblind is to be in denial of the world around you. Everyone has a face – and that face is formed by features that set you apart, not just as an individual, but as part of a group that’s defined by their place in society.  Colorblindness aims to take responsibility out of the hands of the speaker and ignore the experiences of people of color.

It’s not hyperbolic to call colorblindness worse than racism. To completely ignore someone’s race is a form of erasure. Identity is important; no one is born as a blank slate of nothing.  Walking down the street, the first thing you notice in a person is their skin color, size of their lips, hair texture, eye color, etc. To say you’re colorblind to their features is to rob them of their identity. It is in many ways a form of clandestine racism masquerading as polite naïveness.

It’s impossible to go through life and not encounter race. It’s essential to our identity and ignoring it will not help “heal” any wounds. With racists, the people in question are at least honest about their feelings. I rather take that honesty over anyone who tells me they “don’t see color” – because we all know that’s a bunch of bullshit.

Anti-blackness in Mestizo Literature

I didn’t start identifying myself as Mestizo, that colonial label so many Latinos associate themselves with, well into my second year of college.  Before then, my identity was nondescript – an ambiguous mixture that I associated with culture rather than race.  Mestizo provided me with answers. My dark hair, slanted eyes, and yellow undertone were explained in just one word. Because of this, I decided to dig a little deeper and read a bit more on Mestizaje and the philosophy behind it.  Knowing the label I was using to identify with was created to put me, and people like me, into a caste system (which was on top of every other mixture), I quickly realized the depth of anti-blackness found within some of the earliest and most important literature on the subject.

My curiosity was sparked when I took a course on Literature in the Americas. My professor assigned the class Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s “The First New Chronicle and Good Government” as our first book.  This book, or rather document, was written by an Andean Peruvian who learned Spanish late in life in 1615, and is one of the earliest examples of Latin American literature. Its purpose was to document the mistreatment indigenous people of Peru were facing under Spanish colonialism.  Every chapter is introduced with a beautiful line drawing by the author.  Quechua is intermixed with Spanish at random giving the text a genuine feel.  The document was addressed to King Philp III of Spain in hopes that he would do something to end the plight of indigenous suffrage.

Throughout the document, Guaman Poma gives a detailed account of the mistreatment Indigenous and Mestizos face under Spanish rule. After an intense chapter in which he fuses Christian and Inca mythology to tell the story of Adam and Eve (which was an impressive read for even the likes of me – an atheist), he quickly dives into the topic of subjugation. Midway through the document the reader is introduced to a chapter entitled “The Blacks,” and there we see how colonialism infiltrated Guaman Poma thoughts on superiority and racial purity. As I began to read this chapter I couldn’t help but notice how contradictory the whole thing is. Here we have an Andean man whose whole purpose for writing this document is to detail the suffrage of his people and yet his actions mirror those of the Spanish. There is no ambiguity here. His lack of compassion is only eased by his mission to Christianize them.

The first paragraph after the intro is where he really goes at it:

The black criollo men and women are charlatans, troublemakers, liars, thieves, robbers, highwaymen, gamblers, drunks, smokers, and tricksters. With their bad ways of living, their sheer wickedness, and their talking back, they are the death of their masters. They can be holding the rosary in their hands, and all are thinking of is how they are going to steal something.

Here are his thoughts on mixing and intermarriage with blacks:

Blacks should not be brought to Indian pueblos by any Corregidor, encomendero, padre, or noble cacique, unless the black man is married to his equal, a black woman. If he is married to an Indian woman, they should be expelled from the province, under penalty of one hundred pesos for the king’s treasury.

I was floored when I first read this (to put it lightly. Very fucking lightly). What made the text even weirder was his uncertainty. He writes about treating black people with respect only to completely contradict his statement in the next paragraph. He has no problem with Mestizos, but has contempt for those who are mixed with Black to the point of fining them and expelling the Indian women from the village. It truly is a bizarre and fascinating read that opens up questions of anti-blackness found within Mestizo and even indigenous communities.

The next piece is the highly controversial and influential (it’s where we get “la raza” from) “La Raza Cósmica” (The Cosmic Race) by Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos, which was immediately problematic due to a title that sounded like it should have been on the cover of a comic book or science fiction novel rather than an essay about racial mixing. Published in 1925, Vasconcelos explores the benefits of racial mixing and how Latin America is paving the way to a new order; this new mix takes the best of everything and combines it into one (it reminds me of the Nas lyric, “I’m like all races combined in one man“). Reading the essay you can’t help but notice that Vasconcelos might be hinting at eugenics, and this is ultimately confirmed when I read this towards the end of the essay:

… In a very few generations, monstrosities will disappear; what today is normal will come to seem abominable. The lower types of the species will be absorbed by the superior type. In this manner, for example, the Black could be redeemed, and step by step, by voluntary extinction, the uglier stocks will give way to the more handsome.

In other words, Vasconcelos is preaching genocide through breeding.  By taking a black child and mixing it with white or Indian, and repeating the process every generation – you cut the black gene out and after a few generations that black family will be part of the so called “Raza Cósmica” (Mestizo). The dehumanizing language Vasconcelos uses (“monstrosities”, “uglier stock”, “species”) aim to justify his narrative of racial reform and paints Mestizos as those who reign supreme in his own self-created caste system.

Another interesting note I want to add that’s not necessarily anti-black, but very much explores black appropriation is a classic South American song called “Duerme Negrito” (Sleep Little Black Boy), made popular by the Argentine singer Atahualpa Yupanqui. The song, which was sung by black slaves and was passed down orally, details a mother working the fields for no pay while a woman (presumably a friend or family member) taking care of her son tells him to go to sleep or otherwise “viene diablo blanco, y ¡zas! le come la patita” ([and if little black boy doesn’t sleep], the white devil will come and zap! He’ll eat your little foot). This song was made popular by Mestizos and Whites the likes of Victor Jara, Daniel Viglietti, and Mercedes Sosa. I have yet to hear an Afro-Latino actually sing it. It’s curious that a song that’s so explicitly black was made popular and, from my knowledge, sung only by Mestizos and Whites (at least in regards to the popular covers).

I’ve grown to reject the Mestizo label and explore other ways I can express my identity.  I’ve always pretended that anti-blackness wasn’t a problem found in a people who identified as mixed, but reading deeper into the history and philosophy of Mestizo one can easily see how the foundation was first set with the caste system and how deeply rooted and ingrained anti-blackness is in Mestizo culture.

Behind Spanish Names: Brown vs White

Naming your child can be a daunting task if you’re an immigrant. Wanting to assimilate within American culture while preserving your cultural heritage can be tricky. The myth that assimilation can only be accomplished if you erase any part of you that stands as “ethnic” perpetuates a colonial tradition of cultural eradication. However, the biculturality most Latinos (and other people of color) practice aim to be a reminder that both can coexist, but the dominance of American culture still reign supreme when it comes to the treatment of “white” and “brown” names.

The way the Spanish language is treated is amorphous based on cultural context. While Spanish is a European language (with many influences from Arabic), it’s still by all accounts a “white” language.  Within the context of the United States, the Spanish language has very much been racialized as “brown” – putting anyone with a noticeable Spanish name (like Pedro or Carlos) into a disadvantage byway of cultural stereotyping.

Because of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, white names are desirable and the norm throughout Latin American. My father is from Ecuador and grew up speaking Spanish and Quechua (his mother tongue) at home. His last name made his indigenous origin obvious and was considered low-class and undesirable by dominant Latin American (Mestizo and White) culture.  Having an indigenous name cements your position into “bownness” and in turn puts you in a societal disadvantage. My mother refused to take his last name when they married for fear of ostracization, and instead agreed to take his simpler and whiter Spanish middle name for our family surname.

In the United States, Spanish names carry images of maids and cleaners. Having these names on a job application can determine if you get a call back or not. “Brown” names are looked at with contempt, and this is why Latino parents are willing to give their children “white” names. It’s all in the effort of trying to give them a better future, but it also severs as a separation from a culture that is deemed dangerous and unwanted. Both in Latin America and in the United States, hiding and assimilating into dominant culture proves to keep “bownness” at bay. It’s just a matter of perspective.

Latin Lingo: The Dangers of Spanglish

Spanglish is used in a temporary moment in a speaker’s control of English and Spanish. This is ultimately how the language was created. Because there’s only an elementary understanding of both languages, it becomes essential to substitute one for another when needed. The persistent nuances of code switching helps bring a closeness to a community that otherwise is ostracized. However, our constant romanticization of an unstable language is problematic for those who wish to gain a better command and understanding of both English and Spanish.

Because both of my parents are from Latin America, the language my brother and I used was born out of an amalgamation of what we heard in school and at home. We weren’t taught Spanglish — in fact, no one is ever taught how to speak Spanglish. Instead, it grew naturally as a necessity of communication between two different worlds. We fused them in order to easily swing back and forth from dominant and subservient culture. Spanglish is not the opposite of language. The language was already here, within me. It had always been here, and nothing would ever let me forget. Sometimes I would reach out and try to grasp the grains of English and Spanish, but my fingers always touched nothing — I was left with a “little bit of this and a little bit of that.” And herein lies the problem.

Spanglish cannot be properly defined, and most people can’t give you a direct answer to what it actually is.  Code switching in various forms of English, Spanish, and academic speak results in an emotionally charged language that is so expressive and loose that it’s no wonder why many hold it so close. When used in your community, Spanglish is accepted and understood. Your vault of Spanish pronounced English idioms are never judged or questioned, and can be used as a way to express what otherwise can’t be expressed using “proper” English. However, once one leaves that linguistic bubble, they’re hard pressed to find that most of their vocabulary is useless. I take a key interest in my identity, both from a racial and cultural perspective. Spanish is so important to my identity that fluency, or close to it, looks like a goal I will never achieve, and that is no doubt a direct fault of Spanglish.

My pronunciation in both languages suffered because of a fusion that has no rules. Spanglish is spoken so much with loved ones that I sometimes forget to switch it off when I’m around non-Latinos. It’s frustrating when I know a word in Spanish but not in English, or when my pronunciation is off (in either language). Instead of having proficiency in one language – I’m now prosaic in two, and that upsets and disappoints me to no end.  Spanglish is amorphous. It’s never stagnant enough to be a language that is taught. Everyone develops it in their own unique way, using their parent’s dialect as a stepping stone.

Discussing linguistic issues within the Latino community deals with a lot of national pride in one’s own dialect and use of Spanish, but when a speaker decides to take the language seriously and study it, the fact that Spanglish has done more harm than good start to fall like a ton of bricks.

Mestizo Privilege: A Short Etymological Look at Mestizo and Mulatto

Mestizo privilege stems from its etymology. A colonial term millions of Latinos identify with puts us in a position of power solely because of how Mestizo – the literal word – was constructed. Compare this to other labels in the Spanish caste system, and a noticeable divergence within a constructed identity shows how caste labels themselves were developed parallel to how dominant society views them.

Looking at this from a linguistical and etymological standpoint, both Mestizo and Mulatto take on different roles. Mestizo comes from the Latin “mixus” which literally means to mix. Mulatto, on the other hand, derives from the Latin “mulus”, meaning mule, a hybrid between a horse and donkey. The former is categorization while the latter is dehumanization. While both are colonial terms, it’s important to note the difference in origins that these words come from and the impact they have to the people who are systemically assigned to them.

MULATTO: Mule (White and Black)

The Spanish caste system had a myriad of labels for every type of mixture found in the “new world.” However, Mulatto stands out from the rest because of it egregious origins. Designated before birth, a child of mix black and white ancestry were deemed sub-human. This dehumanization was not universal and was only apparent to a specific mixture. The language used made it easier to justify the treatment of mixed black people because it labeled them as animals and in turn were treated as such.

MESTIZO: Mixed (White and Amerindian)

Closer to whiteness, Mestizos were labeled as simply ‘mixed.’ Because the offspring of a white and Indigenous parent have a higher chance of ‘passing’, they, while not necessarily white, were close enough to warrant a label that was less harsh and more appropriate to mixed-race people.

These label are the societal roles that paralyze us to our own individuality. Its sole aim was to categorize and dehumanize. My curiosity about these origins and the careful literary use has both helped and hindered my own racial understanding, but it’s also deeply aided my comprehension to the power of labels and what their origins represent.

The Happiness of Being Alone

The further away I am from people, the better I feel (sometimes).

This isn’t something that developed over time. It wasn’t something I “achieved” because of social neglect. Ever since I was a child I preferred being alone. I can spend hours, days, weeks, and months in isolation. I find solitude to be comforting and even therapeutic. I always found socialization to be a chore, which is weird because most of my writing deals with people and how they interact with each other. The things I do and the way I act are not reflective of my supposed “loneliness.” Like most people, I fear rejection, and my anxiety can get the best of me sometimes. I don’t hate people or their idiosyncrasies; I just find them tiring. I’m exhausted listening to the success and failures of others.  I don’t lack compassion; I’m just selective of the days when I’m available. I can be stubborn and very selfish when it comes to my emotional health (I believe everyone should be), but this isn’t indicative to some abnormality of self, more like a cautionary step in self-help.

Socializing is something I do sparingly. When the need arrives, I feed it and nourish it until it’s satisfied (which is usually a few hours). After that, I’m good being alone for another week or two. When it comes to relationships, I find giving your partner space essential. I have less of a problem seeing one person (especially one I deeply care for) than I do a group. Like I said before, I’m not some dark and depressive person hiding from anyone who gives me a glance on the street.  I’m the kind of person who likes to be alone. I don’t find it to be painful or harmful to my emotional health. I don’t rely in the company of others to help me go through my day. I feel that reliance eventually morphs into dependency. To be dependent is to give up so much of myself that I cease being who I am and end up being controlled.

Perhaps my love for solitude was something transplanted in me since birth. My father was kicked out of his home in Ecuador when he was 13 and lived as a street kid for 6 years until his mother finally took him back. By then, he already lived a life of solitude, and would move out in a few short years to the United States. He did this by himself and never really enjoyed the company of others. While my narrative doesn’t involve child abuse, I feel like I understand him in some level. We’ve arrived at isolation from two diffrent angles: his was neglect and distrust of people, mine was to have a respite from the urgency of society.

Being alone isn’t so bad in the age we live in. I get most of my social interactions online, mostly through Twitter. I’ve met so many great people through the internet. What was looked at as weird is now the norm.The internet has helped balance my life of being alone with instances of socialization sprinkled throughout.

I have no interest in romanticization. I try to balance what works with my emotional health with my social life. The notion of being alone equating to being depressed is nothing more than a stigma perpetuated by people who want you to live life the way they deemed fit. They see people who want to be alone as people in dire need of help without knowing it. Fact is, I’m actually doing okay. And for some reason that pisses people off.

Latino and Hispanic: Same Truths

There’s always been a problem with the labels “Latino” and “Hispanic.” It lies with the language we were given (as opposed to it being born within our culture) to identify as. Both Hispanic and Latino are labels that attempt to homogenize a group that is racially, culturally and linguistically complex. ‘Latino’ is much in the same category as ‘Hispanic’ — they are essentially two sides of the same coin. They are at its core colonial identities.

While Hispanic  has connection to our Spanish colonizers (which is why many American Latinos reject the term), Latino stems (or popularized) from a failed attempt at colonization by the French. In short, the French wanted to establish a “Latin American” empire, as opposed to the Anglo American Empire of the United States, and thought it would be fit to colonize Mexico, South and Central America as a hub for Latin presence in the Americas.

The French justification for all of this was language, culture, and religion. Painting in broad stokes, the French saw a sort of kinship with the people of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries. They saw them as part of a “Latin Race” that closely resembled their own. Latin American intellectuals quickly started to use Latino and Latin America as way to spite Spain and look up to France as a cultural model. The problem with this is that the intelligentsia traded one European power for another, leaving their identity as ambiguous and broad as possible. This new movement failed to achieve its goal of racial and cultural reform, instead it left a deep and problematic imprint on the entire continent.

Language is used in asserting one’s identity — and most importantly it distinguishes one group from another. Its impact in culture, especially indigenous culture, can easily be overlooked and erased by an identity that is so broad that it simplifies everything to a ridiculous degree, hiding all the complexities that might challenge an ideal culture. Latino — the very word we use to describe ourselves as a people – serve to give false hope of unity and completely disregards non-mestizo (mostly influenced by European thought and tradition) and puts our indigenous population (among many others) under surveillance, silencing a culture and people that might not necessarily fit within a label that generalizes millions.

Gentrification and Queer Spaces

Cities like New York are amorphous because of their refusal to stay intact. Preservation is not cared for when it comes to undesirables, particularly concerning queer people of color.  The common misconception of such places is that it’s riddled with violence and unwanted sexualities.  This keeps the popular discourse in a “pure” state which involves displacing its people in favor for a wealthier and more privilege group.

Queer spaces, such as Christopher Street Pier in New York City, has completely been gentrified. A renovation of its history has replaced the once venue for LGBT teenagers (mostly of color) of their meeting ground. A quick walk through the pier now (more than 15 years after the film Paris is Burning) will reveal  how the pier ultimately became a regulated space. The once dingy pier is now infested with an upper – mostly white and cisgender – class of people. The complete opposite of what the pier used to be.

Gentrification is a word that is met with a lot of hostility, but truth is that the word is a metaphysical double edge sword. What makes the gentrification of Christopher Street Pier of much interest is that they gay friendly city of New York has completely erased a culture that exclusively belonged to queer youths of color. All the rainbow flags planted around the neighborhood are not going to tell their story. Taking a quick walk around the pier now and it’s impossible to see how it was once a safe haven for runaways and the queer mecca in New York for teens of color. This displacement was used to raise taxes, build fancier buildings, and present the city as a family friendly environment. This ultimately sets off a series of neglect and genocidal acts to New York’s queer history.

Gentrification has a way of keeping anything non-normative out of sight. The people who take part in gentrification have good intentions, but those intentions don’t excuse their behavior – the lack of any knowledge of the neighborhood they’re moving into reveals a clear sight of naivety and ignorance. It is true that the pier is now safer and cleaner, but gentrification only works if it moves the poor, the queers, and racially undesirables away from their meeting ground – it’s a way of shutting their public image down, hiding it and keeping it under surveillance.

Culture, Identity, and Tribalism

Critiquing culture is very much like walking on eggshells. We choose our words carefully in order not to offend. Culture – much like race and gender – is a social construct. Culture affects many aspects of our everyday lives, but it’s also completely man made, meaning it’s inherently filled to the brim with imperfections. However, these imperfections are usually shielded from criticism when an outside force, or even when someone affiliated with that particular culture, questions some of its practices.

Human beings are tribal creatures. Whether we like to admit it or not, we love to be categorized into groups that best describes us. Being labeled an identity that best illustrates our beliefs and personalities are essential, but the moment someone mislabels us we strike down in anger to correct them. This ethnocentrism, or rather tribalism, is natural in human psychology. While tribalism isn’t necessarily bad, we all like to belong and be in the company of people who share similar beliefs, it does becomes problematic when we judge or excuse others by our cultural values and traditions. This like everything in life is connected to culture; but culture alone doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

As a Latino, I tend to examine and critique my own “Latin” culture. Because Latino is an umbrella term, defining what “Latino culture” is proves to be quite difficult. It’s easy to generalize what constitutes as Latin American culture by reinforcing stereotypes that Latinos themselves end up believing, but sometimes it’s difficult to move away from these cultural expectations. It’s natural to romanticize our respected cultures, but it’s also important to recognize the failures within them; because without this recognition we’re held hostage in a constant cycle of never ending problems that eventually become normalized, especially in regards to the Latin American ideals of masculinity and femininity. To generalize, we Latinos are a “proud people,” but this pride does nothing to improve our social and political status. In fact, it hinders us to the point of blindness to the real issues facing our community. The ethnocentrism being displayed at the 2014 World Cup is the perfect example of turning a blind eye to the real issues facing Brazil. As we root for our favorite teams – which seem to be largely selected because of nationality not athleticism – riots are breaking out in the streets of São Paulo in the name of social inequality.

There are many defense strategies that Latinos (this is true of any group) use in order to protect our identity, our people, our tribe – but this isn’t without the agony of the constant usage of “we.” The so called “we” rouses up to recuperate with contempt for those who have shame us. The amorphous “we” speaks for no one in particular. In order to escape any threat of shame, one must rely on a tribe to generalize our experiences, be it race, gender, religion, language, etc.

To further illustrate, the collective “we” in early feminist literature was very much upper class and white, not to mention cisgender and heterosexual. This was later challenged by the likes of Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison who rejected the notion of the “universal female experience.” It is true that similarities are shared but the differences present are important and cannot be so easily ignored. The same can be said about Latinos and “Latin culture.”

Culture expands on so many levels in human life, everything from language to food. However, shutting down a reasonable argument simply because the critique comes from an outside perspective accomplishes nothing. Instead it relies on human instinct of protecting one’s own tribe over logical thinking. Feelings become censored before it has any time to register in our consciousness. This is obviously a complicated matter that must be treated with care and respect, but as human history has shown us, tribalism isn’t going away anytime soon.