The Problem With Latinidad

Every September 15, a flurry of independence days across Central America—in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—kicks off National Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration of Latin culture that lasts through mid-October. For Latin Americans and their descendants, the month is a time to celebrate shared cultures and customs across nationalities.

For others in the United States, it provides an opportunity to educate Americans about a growing demographic that, like most minorities, has long been relegated to the margins of US history and, over the past half-century, has worn many hats—“Latin American,” “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and most recently, “Latinx.” Now, however, a growing number of writers, activists, and academics are questioning the very underpinnings of this common identity, an idea known as Latinidad (loosely translated as “Latino-ness”).

Historically, the forging of this ethnic identity has been understood as a necessity in the face of white supremacy and anti-Mexican Juan Crow laws. In response to recent events, it’s been useful for raising awareness of migrant family separations, Washington’s insistence on militarizing borders in Mexico and Central America, and mass shooters warning of a “Hispanic invasion” of the United States. Even so, its most vocal critics, who are often young and black or indigenous, have not minced words in their critique of what they see as an exclusionary identity fabricated by—and for the benefit of—white and mestizo elites and the American political class.

I spoke about the recent rejection of Latinidad with the journalists, organizers, and thinkers at the forefront of this conversation. We talked about what determines who is allowed to claim the term, what purpose it serves, and whether the identity is useful as a category anymore.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Miguel Salazar

Amanda Alcántara is a Dominican journalist and digital media editor at Futuro Media Group.

Daniel Alvarenga is a Salvadoran journalist and a video producer at AJ+.

Rosa Clemente is a black Puerto Rican journalist, organizer, and founder of Puerto Rico on the Map.

Kristian Hernandez is a Mexican-American organizer in Texas with the Democratic Socialists of America.

Janel Martinez is a Bronx-born Garifuna journalist and founder of Ain’t I Latina?

Alan Pelaez Lopez is a Zapotec cultural critic, artist, and academic.

Miguel Salazar: What has been fueling the growing rejection of Latinidad in recent months? Do you identify as Latinx?

Alan Pelaez Lopez: I think that the rejection has been pretty alive in indigenous communities who migrate from Latin America and the Caribbean to the US. I think, in the last five years especially, we’re seeing a critique from Latin Americans on the single narrative of Latinidad. The rejection of Latinidad embraces nuance by inviting people who have traditionally been silenced in the US and also in their countries of birth. And I don’t have any desire to be Latinx because I don’t think that my end goal is to reclaim a community that has never accepted me.

Rosa Clemente: “Latinidad” is an academic term that failed because it erases away race. For those of us who are black Puerto Ricans or maybe identify as indigenous, what it really does is it just waters down who we are and it erases blackness. The whole term is flawed.

Amanda Alcántara: The word I’ve been using to identify is “Afro-Caribbean” because it is regional and specific to places that are often excluded in our perception of who Latin America represents. I still use the word “Latina,” but because it’s used in the US. As a journalist, I cover Latino issues, specifically Afro-Latinx issues and Dominican issues, so I still rely on the term even if I don’t want to identify with it. What happens when you subscribe to the idea of a single Latinidad narrative is you create a monolith—culturally and politically—of an entire continent when every single country and every single community has their own history.

Daniel Alvarenga: Latinidad in general doesn’t make room to talk about US imperialism, either. It doesn’t make room to talk about conflict. [As a Salvadoran,] I might have a stronger bond with people from countries that have undergone conflicts, but I can’t make those connections so easily, because I’m stuck in this Latinx box.

MS: Should there be a common Latin identity? What purpose should it serve?

APL: I don’t know that there should be a common Latinx identity. This identity is rooted in land and geography when it should be rooted in understanding settler colonialism in the Americas. I would be invested in a political Latinidad that first and foremost fought for indigenous sovereignty and black liberation. If it doesn’t do that, I don’t see the purpose.

AA: Part of me thinks there is a use to the term because we still don’t have a better alternative at the moment. I think that hyperlocal is the way to go in terms of identifying in the future. Then you don’t have to add something like “Latin,” which adds a whole other layer of meaning.

RC: When elections start to happen, you have more and more people who have visibility, usually white-passing Latino, Latina, Latinx people who also want us to encompass this 60 million people demographic, assuming that we’re all going to vote Democrat. That’s what they’re really trying to do, because they know that we’re essentially the swing vote.

Janel Martinez: A lot of these terms come from the emergence of marketing and advertising agencies and are also used for political purposes and data [collection] in the US. Despite that being the case, whether we use “Hispanic,” whether we use “Latinx,” whether people go with their racial identity, whether they go with their nationality, lived experiences still are at play. There are still overlapping experiences, no matter the term, and there are still experiences to be acknowledged, whether they are using the term or not.

MS: What role should nationality play in constructing a larger sense of Latin identity?

APL: I don’t even think it’s nationality. Those who can identify with Hispanic or Latinx are those who benefit from power because of language, race and religion. Latinidad offers them a whole community, and then they become the ones at the top of it because they speak proper Spanish and they know their culture and they come from a Christian or Catholic background, whereas people who are practitioners of curanderismo or Santeria, who speak a bastard Spanish, who speak indigenous languages, or who come from other colonies in the Americas are erased from that identity. There is a privilege to being able to being able to identify as Latinx and never be questioned about it, while those who are questioned are informed that they have less power.

DA: There are groups that have the most population, so they also get to shape Latinidad. I grew up outside LA, and Latinidad to me was Mexican culture and Salvadoran culture. You have tacos, people were blasting rancheras. I’ve talked to my friends who grew up in DC, where I live now, and Salvadorans are the majority immigrant group, so Latinidad here looks different. My Salvadoran friends who grew up in New York know more bachata songs than I do and probably know how to dance bachata better because of their proximity to folks who are Spanish-speaking Caribbeans.

AA: As someone who is Dominican and someone who is black, why should I be identifying with a term that is inclusive of folks in the region of Latin America but doesn’t necessarily include Jamaicans, who are right next to the Dominican Republic? It doesn’t include Trinidad and Tobago or other islands that have a lot in common with the Dominican Republic by virtue of also being a black Caribbean island.

DA: There are things we share across the board. I think everyone consumes Goya products, we consume certain staple foods like rice and beans, but is that Latinidad? At the end of the day, Latinidad doesn’t get to the core of this, which is that some of the things that we consider Latinx are actually indigenous or African traditions that have a very painful history. We don’t think, “Oh, we all eat plátanos, and plátanos come from Africa.” We think, “This is Latino food.” What does that mean? We think of tamales as a Latino food, but it’s an indigenous food. Latinidad kind of glosses over how Latinidad came to be, which has a very ugly history that doesn’t really get acknowledged.

APL: Living in California has made me really critical of Latinidad. Mexican folks here are very nationalistic, but the Central American community, because of Mexico’s nationalism, has pushed back so much that they’ve actually become anti-indigenous in their narrative. It has created a binary opposition where Central American identity depends on borders. But I know Zapotec people living in Guatemala. There are Maya in the Yucatán peninsula, there are Maya in El Salvador, in Guatemala, in Belize. I think that Central American Twitter, because of Mexican nationalism, has tried to retaliate, but has accidentally perpetuated indigenous erasure.

MS: Latin America is racialized differently from in the US. How do we grapple with that in a country where conversations on race can be so black and white?

APL: In the US, when people see my body, they identify me as black. I’ve traveled outside the US, and in South Africa, I was seen as a colored person. In West Africa, I was seen as white. We have to know that race changes—not just country by country but even state by state. In Oaxaca, my body is not questioned because there are so many people that look like me. But when I enter Mexico City, I’m always in question. We are racialized. We don’t get to claim a race. People tell us what we are dependent on the geography that they’re in.

JM: Some people still don’t understand that Latinx is an ethnic group, not a racial category, and a lot of people to this day use it interchangeably. There are people who are white or white-passing and comfortable with being called a person of color. You have one foot in, one foot out, because there are situations in which you are identifying as a person of color but you take any opportunity you have to separate yourself from black and indigenous people.

RC: In America, everyone has a black and white discussion about race, but when they say “black,” which group of black people are they talking about? They’re not talking about Haitians, they’re not talking about Nigerians, they’re not talking about Ethiopians. With President [Jair] Bolsonaro, Afro-Brazilians are being killed every day by the state. In Colombia, Afro-indigenous people and Afro-Colombians face the same violence. It’s hard to have these discussions when “black” in the US automatically means African American and leaves out other black people, especially people from the African continent and the Caribbean.

AA: When you look at the history of the US—at Chicanos, at the southern border—these people were an intrinsic part of the United States, and it’s kind of insane that Latinxs are not considered in the conception of what America is. But at the same time, neither are black people. I think that black folks are still also very much oppressed by the US and oppressed by white supremacy and there is a camaraderie there that has been historic and that also doesn’t get a lot of attention. I think the reason why is, by bringing all people of color together, then you create the conditions to question the national identity and, honestly, also for protest and revolution.

MS: How has this identity informed your politics?

Kristian Hernandez: It’s important that those of us who are still connected to other countries should continue to forge and strengthen those connections. For a lot of us who consider ourselves socialists, we know it’s going to require an international movement and international solidarity. Are we having those relationships forged? The trust that often comes with a shared home or a shared group makes it a lot easier to navigate political struggle and to be in touch with the communities that are impacted in other parts of the world, and that better informs where we can support other movements on the left in other countries.

DA: If you’re not interrogating Latinidad in smart ways, you’re celebrating colonialism in a way. And those independence days [kicking off Hispanic Heritage Month] in most of those countries are fake. We don’t have a whole lot of sovereignty. In El Salvador, we don’t have our own money, we are not independent from global capital and American interests. It gives you cultural pride to have that month, but at some point, are we just celebrating that we were colonized?

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