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Suffering Our Forefathers’ Sins: A Latino’s Reflection on White Supremacy

August 12th, 2019 | 18 min read

By Nathan Luis Cartagena

Two Saturdays ago mi esposa and I mourned for those devastated by the El Paso shooting. For us, this hit home. We had lived in the Lone Star State for seven years, our daughter was born there, and we have strong relationships with Chicanos/as from la frontera—the Texas-Mexico borderlands.

As we mourned, I thought about white supremacy’s role in this shooting. I thought about the painful irony that white supremacy originates in Portugal and Spain, the lands from which the ancestors of most Latinos/as and its subsets—including Chicanas/os and Tejanos/as—hail. This includes my ancestors. I am, after all, a Cartagena.

Yet despite our origins, Latinos/as are not deemed true whites. We are a racialized other; even the lightest of us who pass or receive the status of honorary white know this comes at a price and is liable to be lost the moment someone suspects we’ve broken the norms of white solidarity. How did this happen? How did the Iberian Peninsula’s Latina/o children lose the status of white? Let me sketch an answer for you.

The Rise of Whiteness

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Whiteness is a colonial category birthed in Portugal. It is there, as Willie James Jennings observes, that imperial expansion and a racial scale mingled and produced the start of whiteness. We see this in the first recorded slave auction. Reflecting on the year 1444, Portugal’s royal chronicler Gomes Eanes de Azurara writes:

[On] the next day, which was the 8th of the month of August, very early in the morning, by reason of the heat, the seamen began to make ready their boats, and to take out those captives, and carry them on shore, as they were commanded. And these, placed all together in that field, were a marvelous sight; for amongst them were some white enough, fair to look upon, and well proportioned; others were less white like mulattoes; others again were as black as Ethiops [Ethiopians], and so ugly, both in features and in body, as almost to appear (to those who saw them) the images of a lower hemisphere.

Though all depicted are slaves, not all are equal. Some are “white,” and therefore “fair to look upon, and well proportioned.” Others are “black,” and hence “ugly”—as if they had come from Hell itself. In between the heavenly and hellish flesh are the mulattoes, the mixed who receive little discussion.

The scale Azurara presents is repackaged and disseminated by other European colonializers. The Spanish develop racial taxonomies ranging from sixteen to twenty-two categories deep. The Council of Provincial Mexico compile the latter for the Pope and the Spanish king in 1585—not even a century after Columbus’s initial voyage. This gift, like its counterparts, depict the movement of limpieza de sangre—“purity of blood”—with limpieza de raza—“purity of race.” Whiteness was pure and elite; everything else fell on a graded decline. Writing about this “pigmentocracy,” C.R. Boxer observes:

Persons of mixed blood were usually regarded with suspicion, dislike, and disdain, due to the erroneous belief that the colored blood contaminated the white, as the history of mesticos in the Portuguese empire and of mestizos in the Spanish empire shows.

Yes, Boxer acknowledges, there were exceptions. Some accepted the mesticos and mestizos—the racially mixed. “But both Iberian empires,” Boxer notes, “remained essentially a ‘pigmentocracy’ . . . based on the conviction of white racial, moral, and intellectual superiority—just as did their Dutch, English, and French successors.” As Howard Winant writes, those European powers held that they were “the whites, the masters, the true Christians.” Winthrop Jordan succinctly captures this trend when he says the British colonists treated “Christian, free, English, and white” as metonyms. Each word is equivalent.

Whose “Whiteness” Will Prevail?

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Whether Iberian or Anglo, French or Dutch, conceptions of whiteness shape how European empires construct the Americas and Caribbean. But these conceptions are not identical; “whiteness” isn’t monolithic—it comes in various forms. When a seventeenth century Spaniard, for example, conceives of herself as truly white, superior, and Christian, she does so as a Roman Catholic who interacts with the world through Spanish. For her, to be white, superior, and Christian is to be an Iberian Roman Catholic who speaks and thinks in Spanish.

Not so for the seventeenth century English. They think that being white, superior, and Christian is to be a free English citizen who speaks English and is Protestant. Walter Mignolo captures how these conceptions fit within two general colonial categories. “’Whites’ in South America were Roman Catholics and spoke Latin (or Romance) languages.” Matters differ in North America. There whiteness was “based on Protestantism and Anglo-Saxon languages.” Hence alternative views of whiteness are tied to geography, language, and religious communions. Each informs imperial competitions for global power.

Yet during the seventeenth century, the Anglo-Saxon based conception of whiteness begins to surpass its Iberian counterpart. And by the nineteenth century, ex-Spanish and ex-Portuguese colonies start championing “Latinidad”—a cultural and political vision of a Roman/Latin-based community. This movement originates among the Creole-Mestizo/a elite. Speaking of the ex-Spanish, Mignolo observes: “White Creole and Mestizo/a elites, in South America and the Spanish Caribbean islands, after independence from Spain adopted ‘Latinidad’ to create their own postcolonial identity.” Columbian Torres Caicedo was influential here. According to Caicedo:

There is Anglo-Saxon America, Danish America, Dutch America, etc.; there is also Spanish America, French America and Portugese America; and therefore to this second group what other scientific name applies but Latin?

The use of “Latin” and “Latinidad” is important. It taps into how those in Europe used “Latinidad” as a transnational category containing Southern countries (France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) deeming themselves inheritors of the Roman Empire. Yet in South America, the term didn’t transfer Rome’s glory. Instead, “Latin” became synonymous with inferiority. Caicedo’s Northern America had won the competition for defining whiteness.

Why? What contributed to South America’s racial subordination? Let me highlight three factors: racial mixing; linguistic racialization; and geographic racialization.

First, the “Latins” of the Americas became synonymous with racial bastardization. Whether one considers sixteenth century racial taxonomies like the one proposed by The Council of Provincial Mexico, or their eighteenth century counterparts offered by Immanuel Kant or Johann Blumenbach, prominent racial logics presume purism—the belief that non-mixed races are superior to mixed ones. And each logic emphasized the importance of maintaining whiteness. Yet Iberian descendants throughout the Americas did mix with other racial groups. White, Indian, and Black—each supposed racial stock coursed through their veins, to use the parlance of the day. Anglos found this monstrous. And they countered it with large-scale racial purity crusades.

Second, competing linguistic markers of the dominant conceptions of whiteness took on enhanced significance. Mignolo notes that beginning in the eighteenth century:

Spanish and Portuguese were falling behind in the triumphal march of Western European civilization led by the French, German, and English languages. A major obstacle to reaching that goal was that civilization and progress radiated from the countries whose official languages were not Spanish and Portuguese. Decolonization in the US was indeed a continuation of what England had already began, and the English language was a support rather than an encumbrance . . . Spanish and Portuguese were degraded from imperial hegemonic languages to subaltern imperial languages and superseded by French, German, and English. No one knew that the racialization of languages and knowledge was at stake (racialization, as we know, operates at many levels and not just in the color of your skin). Languages, and the instantiation of the hierarchy among them, were never outside the project of the civilizing mission and the idea of progress.

The Iberians had bequeathed their racial scale to other countries vying for imperial power. In all cases, these expansionist projects carried visions of civilizing meant to bolster human and global progress. In North and South America, Iberian descendants speaking the peninsula’s tongues where no longer leading the civilizing charge. Their languages had been racially demoted.

Third, during the nineteenth century the “Latins” of “Latin” America underwent a geographic racialization. As Mignolo writes:

[They became] a new ‘racial’ category defined not by blood or skin color but by marginal status (determined by a myriad of markers such as geographical location and language) in relation to Southern Europeans . . . Being White “Latin” American (instead of Latin French, for instance) was not being White enough, as is made clear today when “White” Latin Americans migrate to the US.

Though related, geographic racialization is distinct from linguistic racialization. For a light-skinned Latino without a distinctively “Spanish” accent is still not white enough to avoid racism; this is my experience. Even those whose families have lived in las fronteras of the Southwest for centuries, are light-skinned, and speak no Spanish hear “go back to your country.” Geography is racialized. And those with familial ties to “Latin America” carry their land with them; they are never white enough.

Whiteness and Latinos/as in the US: The Plight of Mexican Americans (1835-1910)

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In 1835, Anglo-Americans and Mexican Tejanos fought a war of independence from Mexico. Stephen Austin, an Anglo colonizer often called “father of Texas,” describes it thus: “A war of extermination is raging in Texas—a war of barbarism and of despotic principles, waged by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race.” Austin’s racial rhetoric is arresting. But it isn’t surprising, for it reflects the racialized expansionist competitions we have considered, along with Austin’s desire to ensure slavery becomes legal in Texas. Austin sees himself on the side of the true whites, the civilized Anglos. The Iberian descendants fighting alongside him are not his equals. They are mongrels, racialized mutts bound to barbarity. Hence, for Austin, they are like Negroes—the race of people he deems natural slaves.

Austin’s comments are not unique for the time. As David Weber writes:

[Anglo-American] visitors to the Mexican frontier were nearly unanimous in commenting on the dark skin of Mexican Mestizos, who, it was generally agreed, had inherited the worst qualities of Spaniards and Indians to produce a [despicable] ‘race’ still more despicable than that of either parent.

The Southern Review’s essay “The Latin Races in America” supports Weber’s claim. Consider the following passage on the Mexican race.

An admixture of two unequal races is therefore a cancer, an unpardonable sin against mankind and against nature, which has launched an ever flaming curse on all such connections; inasmuch as she lets the mongrels invariably inherit all the vices and evil traits of both races and rarely, or never, any of the good. Nature absolutely disallows the adulteration of blood; and herein she shows herself to be an aristocrat of the purest water. Every violation of these laws she visits in the most condign and pitiless manner.

Penalties for the sin of miscegenation await Mexicans. What would these penalties involve? Thomas Jefferson Farnham, a financial supporter of Anglo expansion into California, provides a common answer.

No one acquainted with the indolent, mixed race of California, will ever believe that they will populate, much less, for any length of time, govern the country. The law of Nature which curses the mulatto here with a constitution less robust than that of either race from which he sprang, lays a similar penalty upon the mingling of the Indian and white races in California and Mexico. They must fade away.

For Farnham, Mexicans are racial mongrels that Nature penalizes with deficient natures and inevitable demise—“they must fade away.” Or as Sam Houston put it: “The Mexicans are no better than Indians, and I see no reason why we should not go in the same course now, and take their land.”

Not all, however, thought Nature penalized Mexicans with an inevitable demise. Some argued that Nature found servitude a sufficient punishment for racial mixing. Reporter Rufus Sage defends this position. Having granted that “there are no people on the continent of America, whether civilized or uncivilized, with one or two exceptions, more miserable in condition or despicable in morals than the mongrel race inhabiting New Mexico,” Sage offers this advice to would be masters of Mexicans:

To manage them successfully, they must needs be held in continual restraint, and kept in their place by force, if necessary,—else they will become haughty and insolent. As servants, they are excellent, when properly trained, but are worse than useless if left to themselves.

For Sage, Mexicans are uncivilized mutts naturally destined for servitude. They need whites like Sage as their masters to flourish. The echoes of Austin are deafening.

And here we must return to Austin. For the Anglo conception of whiteness, with its corresponding conceptions of civilization and progress, he champions the previous depictions of Mexicans as a penalized mongrel race. Congressman William Wick declared that he “[does] not want any mixed races in our Union, nor men of any color except white, unless they be slaves. Certainly not as voters or legislators.” Wick fears this mixing would impede the expansion of a pure, white, Anglo race. What would that expansion look like? Thomas Jefferson Farnham again provides a common answer:

The mixing of different branches of the Caucasian family in the States will continue to produce a race of men, who will enlarge from period to period the field of their industry and civil domination, until not only the Northern States of Mexico, but the Californias also, will open their glebe to the pressure of its unconquered arm. The old Saxon blood must stride the continent, must command all its northern shores, must here press the grape and the olive, here eat the orange and the fig, and in their own unaided might, erect the altar of civil and religious freedom on the plains of the Californias.

Manifest destiny isn’t race neutral. It’s tied to white supremacy.

Given the embrace of white supremacy and disdain for mixed races, we should anticipate legislation aimed at oppressing and constraining Mexicans. And this is what we find. Consider Farnham’s beloved California. After the gold rush, Mexicans became the local minorities; Anglos became the majority. And when California was granted statehood in 1850, the majority worked to minimize Mexican political influence. Article II of the 1849 California state constitution only granted the right to vote to white males; Mexicans, Indians, and blacks were denied suffrage. This law applied after statehood. Moreover, it was accompanied by the 1850 Foreign Miners Tax on Mexican and Chinese miners and the 1855 Anti-Greaser Act. Amid this hostile legal climate, Anglo mobs lynched fifteen Mexicans throughout California in 1857.

New Mexico saw similar legal discrimination, though in the form of delayed entrance into the USA: it took New Mexico sixty-two years to receive statehood. Part of the reason for this delay was the “territory’s” demographics: the majority population were deemed racially mixed, dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking Mexicans. Hence Senator Albert Beveridge, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, devoted most of his questions about New Mexico’s fitness for statehood to issues of racial composition and Spanish-speaking. Beveridge writes:

On the whole, the committee feel that in the course of time, when education . . . shall have accomplished its work; when the masses of people or even a majority of them shall in the usages and employment of their daily life have become identical in language and customs with . . . the American people; when the immigration of English-speaking people who have been citizens of other states does its modifying work with the “Mexican” element—when all these things have come to pass, the committee hopes and believes that this mass of people, unlike us in race, language, and social customs, will finally come to form a creditable portion of American citizenship.

This 1902 report continues the racial rhetoric of civilizing into Anglo-Americanism. So superior are the Anglos that they alone receive the title “American.” Caicedo’s vision of two Americas is gone. Only the Anglo is American; only the Anglo is white. Any successful attempt to enter this white space requires massive assimilation. As a 1910 committee put it after a bare majority of New Mexico’s population could speak English: “Since we are about to admit [New Mexico] as a state of the Union, the disposition of its citizens to retain their racial solidity, and in doing so to continue the teaching of their tongue, must be broken up.”

Whiteness and Latinos/as in the US: The Plight of Mexican Americans (1910-1950)

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Gloria Anzaldúa notes that “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” Recognizing this wound, many in the Southwest’s Mexican communities kept their political and social aspirations directed at returning to Mexico. This orientation changed with the Great Depression. In response to the economic collapse, Anglos blamed Mexicans and demanded their deportation. As Ian Haney-López writes: “National, state, and local governments responded with deportation campaigns that expelled over half a million persons, including many U.S. citizens, amid tremendous hardship.” This expulsion solidified the Mexican American identity. Again, Haney-López:

Those most likely to remain in the United States through the calamitous 1930s included persons with the most developed employment, property, family, social, and cultural ties to the United States. The Mexican community that remained developed a new identity as “Mexican Americans,” asserting through that label a political and social philosophy centered on the claim to be quintessential members of the U.S. polity.

But to be members of the U.S. polity, Mexican Americans had to recast their racial categorization. They could not be mixed mongrels; or a separate, non-white race like the 1930 census suggested; they needed to be white. Understanding this, Mexican American leaders asserted that Mexicans were white.

The claim to whiteness involved two components: one biological, one civic. Mexican American leaders argued that they were biologically white. Some grounded this in racialized conceptions of blood (e.g., “Our ancestors were European.”). Others in facial features or skin color. And some employed all three categories. One sees these biological views championed by members of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the GI Forum. Indeed, these groups challenge segregation practices against Mexicans in the 1940s and 50s by arguing that such discrimination was unjust because Mexicans are biologically white. This argument appears in the early stages of Hernandez v. Texas (1954). And it reflects an awareness of the cultural and capital premiums U.S. citizens and institutions placed on being white. As Cheryl Harris contends, Anglo whiteness is valuable property in the U.S.

Supporting the biological claims involved in Hernandez v. Texas is a civic one: Mexican Americans are white because they are U.S. citizens. Here the racial significance of geography reappears. For these leaders and their followers saw citizenship as inherent to Anglo-American whiteness—el blanco de los norteamericanos—and belonging. Moreover, they distanced themselves from Mexican immigrants—whom they saw as dirty, poor, lazy, uneducated, and dark. Indeed, Mexican Americans feared that Mexican immigrants would hinder their abilities to assimilate into the U.S. Hence, Mexican American legal groups insisted that citizenship was a prerequisite for membership, and ardently railed against “wetbacks.” Some even joined anti-black movements to underscore that they were truly white U.S. citizens.

Whiteness and Latinos/as in the US: The Plight of Mexican Americans (1950-Present)

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Despite their assimilation efforts, Mexican Americans continued to face racial persecution at individual and communal levels. Higher arrest and conviction rates; discriminatory jury selection practices; dilapidated schools and curricula; decrepit health care programs; red-lining policies; hiring discrimination; English-Only campaigns; and false immigration charges—these are but some forms of oppression that taxed Mexican Americans. Anticipating this discrimination, many Mexican American youth in the 1940s and 1950s opted not to assimilate or adapt a racial preoccupation with whiteness.

Instead, they formed pachuco culture. This hip, separatist subculture was neither Mexican nor American—though it had elements of both (e.g., Spanish speaking and zoot suits). The Chicano/a movement (1960s-1970s) took matters a step further. Inspired by César Chávez, those championing La Raza offered an alternative biological racialization of Mexican Americans: They were Brown—not White. Moreover, some held that theirs was a cosmopolitan race that would outlive its purist counterparts. The reversal of Farnham is striking.

But so is the limited success that either pachuco culture or the Chicano/a movement had against broader assimilationist trends. As Haney-López observes, “The majority of those who consider themselves leaders in Latino communities are white . . . they are white in terms of how they see themselves and how they are regarded by others within and outside of their community.” These leaders will check the census box next to “Hispanic,” which first appears in 1970, and then tick the box for “white” when identifying their race.

Yet recent events remind us that “Hispanic” and “White” are not equivalent. Candidate Trump called U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who presided over a fraud lawsuit against Trump University, a “hater” who was being unfair to him because Curiel is “Hispanic,” because he is “Mexican.” Then Republican speaker of the House Paul Ryan condemned this as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” But this comment could only be racist within a certain context—the context we’ve been considering. Terms carry history. And despite being born in Indiana, Judge Curiel carried “Latin America” and “Mexican” with him. No amount of box checking could change this.

And this brings us to the present. For shortly over a week ago an Anglo citizen of Texas executed a mass shooting in response to the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The shooter claims he is “simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” He continues: “The Hispanic population is willing to return to their home countries if given the right incentive. An incentive that myself and many other patriotic Americans will provide.”

I invite you to reread the previous two quotations again. And this time, don’t consider if Candidate or President Trump’s rhetoric has or has not contributed to them. That approach is too shallow. Instead, observe how the barb of whiteness’s long historic arch points to the racist views these quotations assume. Feel the weight of competing conceptions of whiteness, and appreciate the death toll they help produce. See the racialization of geography, culture, and language. Hear the echoes of Austin, Beveridge, and Farnham. Recall the desperate measures that Mexican American leaders undertook to render themselves and their people white. And remember that their venture didn’t succeed; its failure was foreshadowed in the nineteenth century. Four centuries earlier, Iberians undertook the sinful construction of “whiteness.” This fabrication haunts and harms their “Latin” offspring. These children are not white enough.

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