Yesterday (October 15, 2017) marked the end of National Hispanic Heritage Month for this year. Every year since the late 1960s, September 15th to October 15th has been dedicated to celebrating “the contributions made and the important presence of Hispanic and Latino Americans to the United States and celebrate their heritage and culture” (click here for more information). Hispanic/Latino “refers to Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race” and we currently comprise over 17% of the population of the United States. While anti-Latino hate speech seems to be on the rise, institutionalized racism in the United States has targeted Latinos for much longer. Early twentieth century “scientific” racists like Lothrop Stoddard (1883-1950) and Madison Grant (1865-1937) looked at Latinos in a manner not quite in accord with the aforementioned definition. Instead, Hispanics represented to them that which they feared and hated most: the “defiling” of the genetically superior white race through miscegenation with the descendants of African slaves and the indigenous populations of North and South America. In defense of white supremacy, they advocated sterilization and other means in order to implement a gradual ethnic cleansing. Despite the fact that these views have been formally denounced as racist pseudoscience by leaders of the international scientific community since the mid-twentieth century, experience from primary school days to now tells me, and many others like me, that these beliefs persist.
A few examples of the kinds of racist and anti-Latino aggressions (nowhere near being an exhaustive list) to which I have been exposed over the years include:
I worked as an undergraduate at a place where other student employees were primarily from South Asia and the managers were white. Statements shared between the white managers and international students insulting Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics were numerous and almost daily. I approached my employer about this kind of talk, to which he replied that some stereotypes are true. All of this was at a time when the president of our university was a Puerto Rican.
On the shortlist to be admitted to graduate studies at Princeton, I met with one of the better-known senior scholars related to my field who referred to Hispanics as a “peasant race.” I did not pursue graduate studies at Princeton.
A few months into my first semester of graduate studies, I was made aware that one of the professors had asked the only other student of Puerto Ricans descent whether or not we eat lizards (the professor was a person of color who counted themselves among the “model minorities” who were superior to Latinos and African Americans). Both the Puerto Rican student and another student of Central American descent who was present during the exchange expressed to me the level of hurt they felt when being addressed this way in a public setting among other students and professors. My own later experience in classes with this professor included most of my participation being rejected at first and then immediately accepted after an East-Asian female classmate would come to my defense.
One history professor after asking about by ethnic background, suggested I was unfit to be successful in graduate-level studies. He spent a significant portion of one class session mocking the names of Hispanics who had mixed with Asians and other non-Latinos.
One graduate student, also a person of color, in conversation with me referred to Hispanics as having a vulgar culture, while he, as a possessor of “the Arab gene”, came from a superior culture equal to that of white Americans and superior to Latino and African-American culture.
One doctoral student became known for his white supremacist hate speech. Examples include his declaration that “there are too many beaners in Tucson” and other slurs against Latinos, African-Americans, and others that make Richard Spencer and the Alt-right seem tame in comparison. I was briefly part of a research group where he and other white students nodded in approval at the description of a Mexican-American undergraduate student, a bi-racial graduate student, and myself as belonging to “weird races.” The doctoral student referred to white men as “the best race” to which the others laughed, including one white journalism student who otherwise professed to be liberal. Both the latter as well as another MA student who had graduated earlier, at separate times expressed to me their fear and paranoia that Hispanics and other non-white people were trying to “change” white people. I approached a professor in the department regarding this and similar issues, and the response led me to believe that this would only result in me being impacted negatively and no one else.
I contacted a well-known professor of Puerto Rican descent who writes on racism, and his advice to me was the following: “find solidarity from other folks of color… if one finds others, shares stories, and thinks about collective ways to resist, then the struggle becomes feasible; then one realizes that one's pain is the product of a racial order for which one is not responsible (folks want us to believe that things happen because of us, because we make them up). So, find solidarity, create community, and develop collective practices of resistance to racial domination.”
I have since then been awarded a Fulbright and other awards, permitting me to travel for scholarly research to several countries in North Africa, western Asia and Eastern Europe, achievements commonly considered evidence of academic success. Today, a Nuyorican woman from the Bronx, Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, is the first Hispanic to serve in the highest federal court of the United States. With Puerto Rico currently suffering as it is, and being neglected by new political forces seeking to further normalize the racism I am discussing, we have Nydia Velázquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, a Nuyorican democrat, leading the way in advocating for Puerto Rican disaster relief. “Low-class” diaspora Puerto Ricans like the Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Pultizer prize-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda, my fellow Arizona-alum Joseph Acaba, the first person of Puerto Rican heritage to be named a NASA astronaut, and numerous other leading entertainers and successful professionals have continued to increase awareness of the island’s plight, keeping it in the public eye and raising millions of dollars in relief aid.
I repeat the advice of professors like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, president of the American Sociological Association, and others that victims of racism create community and work together with anti-racist allies to develop collective practices for counteracting racism. I have written this essay as a first step in order to encourage others impacted by racism and to let them know they are not alone.