October is Chicanx Latinx Heritage month, which rightfully brings forth a lot of pride and celebration. During this month, all people who identify as Latinx are encouraged to represent their unique and diverse identities, while remembering the history and struggles behind them. It is a time to reflect and remember, and a time to educate those who aren’t familiar with the complexities that come with being Latinx.
There is usually a lot of confusion surrounding what the terms Chicanx and Latinx really mean and who they include. Chicanx is specifically used to describe someone of Mexican descent, but usually refers to someone who was born in the US. Latinx is a broader term that includes anyone who has descended from a Latin American country. However, these terms only describe the ethnic makeup of a person, and have nothing to do with race. It is a common misconception that Latinx people all look a certain way, and all belong to the same racial group. This idea has sparked a lot of conversation amongst Latinx people, especially when addressing how different racial groups within the community are treated. October is ultimately the month to celebrate our cultural connections. Yet, in order to actualize the unity we are so proud of, we must acknowledge the very real racism within the community.
Latin America has always been demographically diverse. Before Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonialism, the region we now know as Latin America was populated by native Indigenous groups. However, after they had been colonized, taken advantage of, and even killed, the racial makeup of these countries dramatically shifted. Entire Native populations had been massacred, and to make up for the lack of bodies they could manipulate, the colonizers decided to enslave even more people. As a result, the next group of people they exploited were mainly from West Africa. Black and Indigenous folks were then forced to live and work in completely foreign environments. This led to resistance in the form of expression. New identities and cultures were created through adaptation and preservation. Through combining old traditions with a variety of new ones, oppressed people created many of the aspects of Latinx culture that we recognize and celebrate today. This includes the food we eat, the music we dance to, and the languages we speak. Yet, Black and Indigenous people never received the recognition that they deserved for creating such beauty.
Over time, different races became more prominent in these countries due to racial mixing. This included mixed Latinx and white Latinx people. White Latinx people were more accepted by European colonizers, and therefore held privilege over Black and Indigenous Latinx people. Even after such countries gained their independence, the power dynamics from the time of their colonization remained. The colonizers’ mindset and hierarchical views stayed ingrained in these growing societies. Black Latinx people and Indigenous Latinx people were discriminated against and forced to live in inequitable conditions, while white Latinx people filled positions of power. The racism and colorism that was internalized by white Latinx people was brutal, and still affects the way groups that make up the community view each other today.
Talking about issues such as racism and colorism in a community that feels so much pride can be tense. However, considering the uprise of movements such as Black Lives Matter, and the hate against Latinx people that spews from our president, the time to reassess harmful power dynamics is now, and the Latinx community should not be exempt from that. It is very true that all Latinx people, especially those in the US, have probably faced prejudice at some point in their lives. However, this does not mean that racist and colorist ideology affects Black and Indigenous people at the same rate as white Latinx people. Since race is purely based on physical attributes, white Latinx folks do hold privilege in a society that is controlled by white supremacy. This was true post-colonization, and it is true today. Though colorism and racism are prevalent in most communities, they are specifically overlooked in the Latinx community since it is wrongly viewed as its own racial group. This is not the case and these issues desperately need to be addressed. Yet, this harmful behavior is so ingrained in day-to-day life that it has been completely normalized. Spanish-speaking TV networks depict Black and Indigenous people as inferior and dangerous. Terms such as “pelo malo,” or bad hair, are used to describe curly or coily hair which is a trait usually seen in Afro-Latinx people. Sayings like “Mejorar la Raza,” meaning “better the race” are used to encourage young Latinx people to have children with light-skinned people. Sayings and actions with explicitly racist messages further perpetuate the unacknowledged issue of racism among Latinx people that stems from the ugly history of colonization.
Without acknowledging these issues, the Latinx community cannot move forward towards actual unity. We must communicate and educate ourselves and others on our differences. We must unlearn harmful generalizations and decolonize our minds. We must correct our family members when they reinforce harmful stereotypes. We cannot enjoy salsa, reggaeton, samba, and cumbia without respecting the Black and Indigenous Latinx people who have created them. We must celebrate both the things that unite us and our differences, because being Latinx can mean so many things, and that is what makes us beautiful.