I must begin by naming the limitations of my perspective: I am a first-generation, U.S.-born, Mexican-American mestiza, or a light-skinned mixed-race person. For me, that means a primarily Indigenous heritage, with more Spanish than African ancestry. I was born in the Rio Grande Valley borderlands to a mixed-status working-class immigrant family and raised in a Black and immigrant suburb in Houston.
Because I am of Mexican descent, some folks might label me a Chicana, but I’ve never really identified that way. I come from the farm laborers and cotton workers of South Texas and Northern Mexico. I come from the workers in towns across the Lone Star state – the truck drivers in Edinburgh, the grocery store workers in McAllen, and the musicians of Brownsville. I have been educated solely in United States public schools, community colleges, state universities, and now, at 38, am a Ph.D. student at a privately endowed California university. This shapes, and limits, my perspective significantly.
I cannot claim to know or speak for the experience of Latinxs (the gender-neutral form of Latino) from anywhere else in the United States, nor (im)migrants, nor people living in Latin America.
I do not have to survive the femicides or political violence in Latin America, nor the violence of the American immigration system. I do not have any Caribbean or South American contexts. And I especially cannot claim the experiences of Blackness or Indigeneity in Latin America, which in and of themselves are not monoliths, but highly specific cultures and societies spanning every country and region in Latin America. Each has its own histories and legacies of enslavement, colonial violence, and colorism, but also enduring histories of resistance and survival in language, music, culture, and spirituality—experiences that are always spoken over and erased by Latinxs who look like me.
In these colonized countries, or settler-states, Blackness and Indigeneity were targeted for eradication via rape, the nonconsensual racial mixing and forced marriage with pre-adolescent girls, and a cultural and ideological whitening that produced an ever-whitening mixed race, the mestizo/a/x. I am a result of that erasure. This self-colonizing ideology has caused mestizxs to historically uphold white supremacy and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence, which we continue to enact today.
This is the failure of Latinidad, a word that refers to the flattening of race, ethnicity, nationality, history, and culture in a unifying project represented by a default light-skinned stereotype, which erases Black and Indigenous people.
It also erases the racialization nonwhite Latinxs experience in the U.S., who on this side of the border, are subject to a United States-specific Anglocentric construction of whiteness, separate from xenophobia (since many Latinxs who experience this discrimination are born in the U.S., descended from indigenous people, and speak English as a first language).
In a time of global pandemic, escalated state violence, unchecked capitalism, voter suppression, isolation and despair, the failure of the American racial imagination has never been more on display, with Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities caught in its crosshairs.
The label of “Hispanic/Latino” has again re-emerged in conversations about race, as it has in crucial points throughout American history. It has long been an unstable political, racial, and ethnic category that is experienced differently according to one’s color and nationality, which demonstrates the political, rather than biological, nature of race.
Since the early 1900s, nonwhite Latinxs have experienced structural racialization, or experiences of discrimination as a result of anti-Black institutions and systems, from Juan Crow laws to segregated schools to lynchings. Black and Latinx neighborhoods, schools, tax districts and communities are defined by a shared vulnerability to the state that results in social neglect, political disenfranchisement, and medical violence, now made visible in COVID infections, essential worker populations, farm laborers, and detained and incarcerated people, as well as recent crises in Latinx internet access, childcare, evictions, voter suppression and police violence.
This instability is worsened by “Hispanic/Latino” as an ethnic construction, which lumps white Latinxs with Black, Indigenous and brown Latinxs. Because race is the primary lens through which inequality is produced and counted in the U.S., poor, migrant and darker-skinned Latinxs who live within U.S. racial structures fall through the cracks of ethnicity in demographic and census data, who if given a choice, would not check “white,” but because no other option exists, are erased by the very categories meant to represent them.
This is the dilemma of Latinx identity. Latinxs come from what is defined as the “Third World,” which is a shared political position, but one that is complicated by untaught colonial histories that make it impossible for it to be a shared identity. We span every race, but our interethnic relationships are complicated by our relationship to whiteness and empire, and our own histories of racial violence. It is difficult to reconcile the racialization of nonblack Latinxs in the U.S. over the past century when in Latin America, we are white, and benefit from white supremacy and Black and Indigenous violence.
Nonwhite Latinxs in the U.S., offered conditional whiteness to dilute Black and Indigenous populations and manufacture white majorities for antiblack ends, still have not been able to gain access to whiteness in the same ways Italian, Irish and Eastern European immigrants have throughout history.
As a colonized people hailing from the developing countries of the global south, nonwhite Latinxs cannot regain access to our Indigenous heritages, nor claim full access to whiteness to protect us from structural violence.
But despite our privilege in Latin America, the United States continues to escalate its anti-Latinx prejudice, from fear-mongering headlines about Hispanic populations surpassing white populations, FOX News telling its viewers to have more white babies, to the recent news of migrant sterilization in ICE detention (following a history of mass sterilization of Latinas between 1907-1978), to family separation, to revoked resident status under new public charge rules, to police brutality, to mass shootings targeting Latinxs, to today’s COVID crisis in vulnerable Latinx communities like the Rio Grande Valley. The call to organize alongside Black and Indigenous people has never been clearer.
Latinxs must evolve our understanding of race not as one flattened identity, but as a shared outcome of colonialism as experienced through our relationship to capital, whiteness and empire and its invented borders.
We must recognize that the crises within the Latinx community as both a target of racist policies and hate crimes in the U.S., and as a site of reckoning of our own racism and complicity with white supremacy, is a call to expand our definitions of liberation from global colonial systems, and form solidarities with Black, Indigenous and all third-world and dark-skinned peoples.
Latinx is not a race, just as American is not a race, but rather a label that prevents us from further examining our specific lived experiences in racial systems. If we begin to understand race not as a fixed, biological, or traceable certainty in DNA, but as an unstable relationship to politics, capital, borders and systems that produce race every day and shift through time, we may begin to more effectively organize around the shared condition of racial violence.
This means we must also contend with our own people as agents of racial and colonial violence. Today, a majority of US Customs and Border Patrol, military, police and ICE forces are made up of Latinxs, many of whom would be racialized and vulnerable to the system without U.S. citizenship status.
Latinx people will never be free until we recognize and refuse our complicity with whiteness and share the path to liberation with Blackness and Indigeneity on a global scale.
We must begin to restore our relationships via unconditional solidarity with Black lives and Indigenous sovereignty, in recognition of our shared heritages and histories as colonized people.
We must first attend to the specific conditions of ongoing violence in Black, Indigenous and migrant Latinx communities, as well as the colonial subjecthood of Puerto Rico. Through specificity may we find unity — until then, tu lucha es mi lucha, or your struggle is my struggle. Black lives matter.
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal is the award-winning author of the poetry collection Beast Meridian and a 2019 Whiting Award recipient. She lives in Los Angeles with her son.
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