Racializing and Re-racializing Latinos

by Raul Quiñones-Rosado, Ph.D.
Latinos and Race Policy in the US (Part Two)

Until very recently, Latinos have been the fastest growing segment of the US population and, at over 53 million people, they now comprise the country’s largest so-called “minority” group. What may not be commonly known, except to US Commerce Department demographers and planners in both public and private sectors, is that Latinos are an economic force with purchasing power of over $1 trillion annually. Latinos are, and have always been, a vital part of the US labor force, as well as of the US military. Of particular interest to political operatives in both major parties, Latinos also help win elections. In 2012, there were over 23 million eligible Latino voters; with an additional 800,000 Latinos turning age 18 each year, Latinos are increasingly becoming a formidable political force.

As peoples of Latin American origin who live in the United States, Latinos are not members of any singular national, ethnic or racial group. We are pluri-national: we originate from the twenty different sovereign Latin American nations, plus Puerto Rico, an unincorporated US territory. We are pan-ethnic: even within these individual nations, there are often many ethnicities or cultural groups. We are multi-racial, but not only at a macro-level in terms of the racial diversity within each nation and across the continent; we are also what I refer to as multizo[1] in terms of the large number of persons who are racially-mixed.

Contrary to perceptions that Latinos constitute a body of voluntary immigrants to the US, much like Europeans, though markedly unlike kidnapped and enslaved Africans, the fact is that people of Latin American origin are here as a result of the United States’ centuries-long policies and strategies of territorial and economic expansion. The vast majority of Latinos are of Mexican origin and, as an oft-repeated statement reminds us: Mexicans did not cross the border; the border crossed Mexicans. The US War on Mexico (1846-1848) resulted in the transfer to antebellum United States and its slave-based economy of almost half of Mexico’s national territory. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States of America gained possession over the northern-most part of the United Mexican States: Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California. And, of course, with possession of the lands, the US also gained control of its Mexican and Native American populations. In the case of Mexicans, the treaty granted US citizenship — a major concession to Mexico given that, as per the US Naturalization Act of 1790, citizenship was a status strictly reserved for whites, that is, people of European descent, which, clearly, Mexicans were not.

Like the northern Mexican territories, Puerto Rico is also land obtained through US military intervention in Latin America. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, US armed forces invaded Cuba and Puerto Rico, Spain’s last remaining colonies in The Americas, taking both islands as treasure of war.[2] Nineteen years later, for geopolitical purposes and against the will of Puerto Rico’s local civilian legislative body, the US imposed its citizenship upon its new subjects, conveniently allowing Puerto Rican men to be drafted into active duty in the US armed forces in World War I. And while the former Mexican states were eventually incorporated as states of the Union, Puerto Rico to this day remains an unincorporated territory—a de facto colony—of the United States.[3]

Beyond the addition of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans to the country’s population over these past 160-plus years, millions of other Latin Americans have since immigrated to the US. Most significantly, the US Latino community has also come to include people from Cuba, El Salvador, Dominican Republic and other parts of Central America and South America’s Caribbean nations, the regions of Latin America closest to and, historically, of greatest economic and geopolitical interest to the US. This steady flow of political and economic refugees from Latin America has continued as a consequence of US policy toward Latin America.

After its wars on Mexico and Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean, the US government directed its military might towards supporting US American economic interests throughout Latin America. According to a 2005 Global Policy Forum report, there have been over seventy-six US military interventions and countless covert actions in the region. These interventions, together with US business and trade agreements with Latin American governments, have resulted in what journalist/historian Juan González refers to as the “harvest of empire”: on-going waves of immigrants, documented and otherwise, from Latin America to the US, forced out of their homelands by economic and political conditions created by US geopolitical and economic interests beyond its own national borders. These geopolitical strategies were implemented in addition to other specific immigration policies established by the US in cooperation with the Latin American governments and local business interests to actively recruit laborers to supplement labor shortages in US farms, factories and mines.

Of the 53 million Latinos in the US today, about 35 percent are foreign-born. The majority of Latinos are US citizens, born and raised in this country, most over multiple generations. Growth of the Latino population, currently driven more by births here than by immigration, is a trend that is expected to continue throughout the 21st century. Already having surpassed the African American population in 2000, the US Census Bureau projects that by 2060 Latinos will comprise just under 30% of the population. “By the end of this century, a majority of the people living in the United States will trace their origins, not to Europe, but to Latin America,” suggests Juan González in Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America, a documentary based on his similarly titled book.

In considering race policy, what must remain clear is that throughout this entire history, from pre-Civil War times to the present, people of Latin American origin in the US, collectively, were neither perceived nor treated as whites. Latinos, as a group, even when officially counted as white by virtue of treaty, law or policy, have suffered discrimination based on their perceived non-white racial backgrounds.[4]

Three important legal cases provide evidence of this race policy in regards to Mexicans. In 1897, Ricardo Rodríguez, a Mexican citizen of indigenous ancestry, petitioned the US Federal Court in San Antonio, Texas to become a US citizen, which was granted “despite the court’s belief he was not White,” a legal prerequisite for becoming a naturalized citizen until 1952. This rare exception was granted on the basis of US treaties with Spain and Mexico conferring citizenship to Mexicans in territories now belonging to the US. In Hernández v. Texas (1954), the US Supreme Court found that Mexican Americans were “a class apart” or “other white,” while in Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District (1970) the US Federal Court found that “Mexican Americans, as an identifiable minority group based on physical, cultural, religious, and linguistic distinctions,” warranted protections against discrimination such as those extended to African Americans as per Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

The segregation of Mexican and Puerto Rican military personnel in the US Armed Forces from WWI through the Korean War, like that of Blacks and Asians, also stands as evidence of the de facto racialization of Latinos as People of Color. Moreover, the documented and undocumented stories of Latinos and Latinas segregated into urban barrios or bordertown colonias, exploited in factories, farm labor camps, hotel rooms or restaurants, mistreated and miseducated in English-only schools across the nation, stand as unimpeachable testimony to the daily reality of being identified as a racialized “other”: other than white.

Yet in spite of this long history of racialization, race policy of the past decades has sought to de-racialize Latinos: to assert that Latinos are not to be viewed as members of a distinct racial group, but rather, should be considered members of an ethnic group who can be of any race. That is, as “Hispanic/Latino/Spanish,” we can be: White; Black/African American/Negro; American Indian/Alaska Native; Asian; and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. Or, at least, we can be counted as one of these races.

[1] From mulato (Spanish/white and Black) and mestizo (Spanish/white and Indigenous), yet inferring our multiraciality—presence of multiple races and history of racial mixing—beyond white (Spanish, other Europeans and Mid-Easterners), Black (African) and Amerindian (Taíno, Azteca, Maya, etc.) of the early colonial period, to include more recent immigrations to Latin America of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and others from around the globe.

[2] In this war, Spain’s colonies in the Pacific, Guam and The Philippines, were also invaded and occupied by US military forces, and transferred in the Treaty of Paris of 1898.

[3] The 3.6 million citizens living in the colony cannot vote for US President and do not have congressional representation other than a non-voting “Resident Commissioner.” Puerto Ricans that join their 4 million compatriots of the diaspora on the US “mainland” do gain these basic civil rights, though only while officially resident of one the fifty states or the District of Columbia.

[4] In each census since the Mexican-American War until 1980, except for the 1930 Census, people of Latin American origin were to be counted as white, unless deemed of another race by census enumerators during in-person interviews (Rodríguez, 2000).

Adapted from Latinos and Multiracial AmericaRace Policy and Multiracial Americans. K. Odell Korgen (Ed.). The Policy Press, University of Bristol, UK. 2016.