Observations on the Development of a Latino Identity

by Joaquín Bustelo (Solidarity, U.S.) on April 9, 2013

Author’s note: With Tavis Smiley’s Latino Nation coming up on Saturday (even though the programs will be broadcast next week), I thought this piece might be of some interest. It was written in August 2005 and published in a discussion bulletin of the socialist organization Solidarity. Several months later, the massive wave of Latino demonstrations against the Sensenbrenner Bill and for immigrant rights swept the nation and in my view confirmed the analysis I presented.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, there was a lot of talk about White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) being the dominant group in the country. You don’t hear the term used much anymore because reality has changed — it was changing even then.

At some point in the 1930s or 1940s there was, I believe, a ruling-class decision or consensus emerged that a whole bunch of folks who until then had been “not quite white,” if I can so express it, would become “white.” They decided to largely tear down the distinction between the WASPs and the “white ethnics.”

World War II, the post-war GI Bill, and then the 25-year economic boom gave a tremendous impetus to this.

Fred Feldman (who is Jewish and I think was born in the early 1940s) wrote on the Marxism List that when he was growing up that his family was very conscious that they were becoming “white,” acceptable, of equal social standing with other “ethnics” and that these European “ethnics” were achieving roughly equal status with the WASPs.

Latinos were most decidedly included in this “whitening” policy. Darker-skinned ones would, of course, continue to be considered Blacks and treated as such, but “white” Latinos were just the most exotic variant of a spectrum that included Poles, Jews, Italians, Russians, and so on. (I’m not sure if “Irish” had achieved equal status by then, but to the degree they hadn’t, they, too, were included).

You can see that from the popular culture at the time. Zorro as a Robin Hood of the American West. West Side Story. But most of all, I Love Lucy.

That was the most popular show in television’s first decade as a mass medium. It was a light domestic comedy centered on a Cuban band leader who was married to a white American redhead. They even had a baby together. It wasn’t a specifically Cuban thing, because after the 1959 revolution Ricky Ricardo suddenly became “Mexican.” (Whether white privilege was also meant to be extended to the recognizably indigenous descendants who make up the big majority of the Mexican and Chicano people is, of course, another question.)

Think about that. Back then, in the 1950s America of McCarthyism and white supremacist resistance to segregation and terrorism against Black folks, what some people today would reject as “miscegenation” was considered a perfectly good theme for light entertainment to sell laundry detergents and washing machines with.

The Democrats in 1960 even had Hispanic “Viva Kennedy” committees. Fittingly enough with this broadening of “whiteness,” Kennedy was an Irish-Catholic.

It should be remembered that in those days Latinos were a very small percentage of the population concentrated in a few states of the Southwest and a few cities on the Eastern seaboard, with small populations in a couple of other industrial centers like Chicago and Detroit.

That this motion towards “whitening” Latinos stopped at some point is evident, and that it had to do with the 1960s, the anti-colonial revolution, and so on is pretty obvious. But a more basic reality undergirds this. I think “non-white” status nowadays generally flows from imperialism and follows the patterns of imperialist domination. The people who traced their roots to “Third World” countries — colonial and semicolonial countries — by and large get second-class (or worse) treatment here.

There are complications in all of this because it is viewed in terms of “race” and “color.”

The U.S. started out as a European (mostly English, but not just English) colonial-settler state. It developed and prospered to a large degree thanks to the expropriation and genocide of indigenous peoples and the genocidal enslavement of Africans. The social construct of “race” grew out of, and helped to justify, this system.


People from Latin American don’t necessarily fit very well into the “color/race” American social constructs and stereotypes. Latinos identify on the basis of factors like language, culture, and history without any necessary “color” or “race.” One of the leaders of the Latino immigrant rights organization in Atlanta, for example, is as “white European” as one could be, but nobody in Latino movement circles thinks of him as anything but Mexican and Latino, although all of his genes and even his last name come from Germany just a generation or two back.

As far as I’m concenrned, in the 1960s, there was no self-identified generically “Latino” movement anywhere in the United States. The movements were (for moderates) Mexican-American or Puerto Rican-American; for radicals, Chicano or Puerto Rican. New Mexico was an exception, but only terminologically: the long-standing Mexican-descended community there often self-identified as “Hispanos” but that was recognized in the movement as just the local name for Chicanos.

Despite that, anybody from any Latin American country who lived in an area where these movements were active was always welcome and the radicals from other Latino backgrounds would usually join whatever the majority group was. I remember well some Puerto Ricans who were leading activists in the Raza Unida Party in Oakland, California — especially one couple, a “white” man with blue eyes and a Black woman.

Visiting Puerto Rico on assignment for the Militant, I met with leaders of pro-independence socialist student groups who I found out years later were Cuban; one of the most prominent figures in the independence and student movements of those years was singer-songwriter Roy Brown, who had been born in Miami in 1950, his father an Anglo, his mother Puerto Rican, grew up in both countries, and radicalized — as a Puerto Rican — in New York when he was 17.

This fluidity of identity flows from another reality, which is that in addition to many specific “national questions,” there is also a national question of Latin America as a whole.

Or, if you don’t want to think in terms of “national questions,” think just that there are different peoples, like the people of Cuba, Mexico, and so on; but all of them form part of the people of Latin America as a whole.

This is not an arbitrary creation like “the people of all the countries whose names start with the letter ‘U.'” This is a self-identity based on geographic, historical, cultural and other factors, but not on “race” or “color” that goes back centuries. And in the past century is has been re-enforced by an increasingly common adversary/oppressor, U.S. imperialism. Thus Latin Americans speak of “La Patria Grande” (the big homeland, Latin America) and “la patria chica” (the individual country).

As martyred Chilean President Salvador Allende said, “Soy un hombre de América Latina, que me confundo con los demás habitantes del Continente, en los problemas, en los anhelos y en las inquietudes comunes.” (“I am a Latin American man who blends into the other inhabitants of the Continent with common problems, desires, and concerns.”)

José Martí’s Cuban Revolutionary Party had a Puerto Rican section that was the main organization of Puerto Rican patriots at the end of the 1800s, the two islands being Spain’s sole remaining colonies in the New World. That’s why the flag of the two countries is the same, with only the colors switched. Puerto Rican poet, patriot and feminist Lola Rodriguez de Tió, who also penned the original words to La Borinqueña, Puerto Rico’s national anthem, wrote in those years, “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas. Reciben flores y balas en el mismo corazón.” (“Cuba and Puerto Rico are, of one bird the two wings. They receive flowers and bullets in the same heart.”)

Dominicans played mayor roles in leading the Cuban insurgents in Cuba. (One-half century later in the 1940s, Fidel and some friends were active in a movement to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Trujillo: this has always been a two-way street.)

The dream of all the great Latin American revolutionaries was to create a giant republic South of the Rio Bravo and the Florida Straits, at least of the Spanish-speaking nations.

The Cuban revolutionaries around Fidel when they took power viewed that as the beginning of a Latin American revolution, and exactly 45 years ago were holding a congress of youth and students in Havana under the banner, “Make the Andes the Sierra Maestra of Latin America.” (No one worked more for this than one of Cuba’s greatest national heroes, the Argentine Ernesto Che Guevara).

Latin American unity is very much a central tenet of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela today.

Within this broad Latin American national question, you have the specific questions of individual countries; Bolivia’s sovereignty, for example. Within that question, you have the question of the systematic political disempowerment for 500 years of the big majority of what is now Bolivia, the indigenous peoples. Within the Caribbean basin you also have the legacy of the enslavement of Africans.

It is not at all predictable from some formula how these national questions within national questions will shake out, nor when. The struggles that emerge around this, the defeats and victories, will have a tremendous impact on the consciousness of Latinos in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.

Right now the trend in Latin America is “Bolivarian” — towards integration, Latin American unity, especially on the left. The thinking is fairly straightforward. It is much easier to imagine a federation of several socialist countries being able to defy the U.S. than a single small-ish country like Venezuela or a couple of countries like Venezuela and Cuba.

This is re-enforced by globalization, and it is notable that the most important media initiative of the Venezuelan Revolution is an international news and information channel to counter the imperialist CNN called TeleSur which just began broadcasting. And that is a partnership between people in Venezuela and several other countries, very much with the idea of creating a Latin American Al Jazeera.

If you look at domestic (U.S.) Spanish-language local and national TV news, you will see that it is very heavy on news from Latin America –with the emphasis on one or another specific country in local news varying from market to market, depending on the makeup of the local population. The weight of Latin American political developments on this sector of the U.S. population is growing as the development of technology over the past 20 years has tremendously reduced the cost of communications.

The political and social weight of immigrants in the overall Latino population is growing, with a massive net influx of perhaps a million people a year (both legal and undocumented). Latinos are now settling in many more states, notably those in the South with better economies (Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, but not South Carolina, for example).

These immigrant flows are scrambled in terms of national origin. Just recently the board of a Latino group I’m a part of had breakfast at a Mexican restaurant in a strip mall owned by a Cuban where we discussed tactics to defend Mexican and Central American immigrants with a legislator of Puerto Rican origin while a Uruguayan waitress served us breakfast cooked by Guatemalans.


Chicago, IL. May 1, 2006

But in addition to that, we have now a new reality in the United States that developed in the last decades of the 20th century. Because we have had for some time Hispanic communities of greatly mixed national origins, there is also a growing layer of young Hispanics who are the product of marriages between Cubans and Puerto Ricans, or Mexicans or Colombians, whose primary national identity, so to speak, isn’t specifically Mexican or Guatemalan but Latino. Even those whose parents may trace their roots back to the same specific country have grown up in this mixed environment.

In this sense I Love Lucy‘s “Ricky Ricardo” should probably be remembered as the first “Latino” because, although identified as a Cuban for most of the show’s run, the allegedly “Cuban” culture that was projected as his went from Carmen Miranda fruit hats (Portuguese-Brazilian) to Uruguayan/Argentinian tangos (there’s a huge brawl with both countries claiming to have originated it) to Mexican Mariachi music. Of course the genuinely Cuban stuff was very heavily African.

You also have a phenomenon, especially in the long-established Puerto Rican and Dominican ghettos, of Latino Afro-Americans. I don’t mean Black Latinos who identify with their African heritage, I mean people who identify both as U.S. Blacks and as Puerto Rican or Dominican.

In this field of increasing cultural cross-fertilization and multiple identities, you have political and social factors operating.

The change in the atmosphere of the Latino communities over the past five or six years has been palpable. At the end of the 1990s, no states implemented the federal diktat to deny drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. The full force of the federal cutoff of social services to immigrants of the 1996 Clinton-Gingrich immigration reform act had yet to be felt. You had the usual nativist rants from the yahoo right, but the Republicans had gotten their fingers burnt with Prop. 187 in California and were a little more circumspect. The economy was booming. The undocumented population was thought to be only a few million.

Now the community feels besieged. “Dred Scott” laws and state constitutional amendments are pending in quite a few states, I think 13 by the latest count. These are sweeping pronouncements whose effect is to say the undocumented are not persons under the law, they have no rights that anyone is bound to respect.

The idea is already being applied without being approved. In a couple of towns in one northern state, several Latinos have been arrested for “trespassing” for just being there, being out in the streets. In Georgia, there are a couple of counties and townships that have made fines (to be more precise: forfeited bail money) for driving without a license significant sources of revenues.

In Michigan right now, the cherry and other fruit crops are in crisis because immigrants have been too scared to come to that state where Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the new name for la migra — has been very active especially against the Arab community but also affecting the Latino community because a lot of us “look Arab.”

The big change of course was September 11, 2001. But this happened to coincide with the application of the Clinton-era decision that Social Security numbers would be required to get drivers licenses (supposedly to track down “deadbeat dads” who weren’t paying child support). It went into effect in October of 2000, but many states were late in complying, and when they did, the post-9/11 identification requirements for airplane and rail compounded the issue. From the point of view of Latino and other immigrants, the United States is a country with a strict internal passport regime, one in which it is difficult, even dangerous, to travel.

But there are other changes as well. Everything I see and read suggests that the huge immigrant wave unleashed by NAFTA (which ruined the corn-growing peasantry in Mexico and with them much local commerce, artisans and so on as well as coincided with the closing of maquiladora plants as the capitalists shifted production to Asia) hasn’t subsided and may well be accelerating. And there’s not just Mexicans and Central Americans crossing the border, tons of people have come here as tourists and stayed. In Atlanta, the increase in the southern cone population is palpable since the Argentine economy cracked up. And there’s a ton of people coming daily from countries all over the Pacific rim.

In Georgia, nearly 15% of births are now to Hispanic women, nearly 20% to immigrant mothers. Nationwide around 22% of all births are to Hispanic mothers and 23% of immigrant mothers. Officially there are 44 million Latinos now, unofficially, 50 million is probably a better estimate. This demographic tsunami in quite palpable and visible in the “hyper growth” states of Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, and the turbulence and dislocations such a massive population shift causes are being manipulated by right-wingers with the aid of the media in the post-9/11 political climate.

The impact in the Latino community is to tend to drive it together because, frankly, the racists don’t care what kind of “spic” you are. As far as they’re concerned, everyone who is recognizably Latino or even “foreign” (Third World foreign, white Brits are okay) by their features, name, manner of speech, dress, or self-identification is part of an “alien invasion,” part of a “reconquista.”

The intermingling of populations of different national origins is leading clearly to a cultural cross-fertilization and an emerging “Latino” or “Latin American” culture and identity that mixes with the similar phenomena that arise from globalization in Latin America as a whole.

Thus, in places like Georgia, the self-identification of the leading activists, and their branding of the movement, is very much “Latino” and not exclusively or narrowly Mexican (the now-dominant national origin group). U.S.-Spanish language and Hispanic-aimed media overwhelmingly speak in terms of Latinos and Hispanics when referring to the community and population and in self-identifying, if for no other reason than that this broadens their potential reach and audience.

How all this will play out in the end is anyone’s guess. But this is some of the background and current tendencies as I see them.

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