How Did You Get to Be Mexican? A white/Brown Man’s Search for Identity



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How Did You Get to Be Mexican? A White/Brown Man’s Search for Identity

Kevin R. Johnson


The son of a Mexican-American mother and an Anglo father, Kevin Johnson has spent his life in the borderlands between racial identities. In this book he uses his experiences as a mixed Latino/Anglo to examine issues of diversity, assimilation, race relations, and affirmative action in the contemporary Unites States.
The conventional wisdom in the United States has long been that immigrants should assimilate into the American mainstream. The “melting pot” metaphor says that it is both possible and desirable for immigrants to blend into the dominant Anglo culture, and that immigrants have a positive obligation to assimilate—to learn English, shed their “foreign” culture, and become “American.”

At the same time, many whites refuse to accept minorities, whether they try to assimilate or not, because of physical and other differences. In response, minority scholars in recent years have forcefully challenged the assimilationist ideal for racial minorities on philosophical, historical, sociological, and psychological grounds. They have responded to the limits and ironies of the assimilationist ideal with a constructive multicultural ethic, in which people of color are respected and valued. Multiculturalism—the view that minorities should proudly assert their difference from the majority—can be thought of as the mirror image of assimilationism.

In reality, assimilation occurs to some extent among all immigrant groups, but the process has not always been smooth. Virtually every wave of immigrants to the United States encountered difficulty adjusting at first. But most European immigrants eventually became an established and accepted part of Anglo-American society, virtually indistinguishable—in terms of skin color, language, and cultural heritage, broadly speaking—from those who came before them.

The assimilation process has been much more problematic for people of color than for European immigrants. In the later nineteenth century, for example, Chinese immigrants helped build this country and got their thanks when Congress passed a series of laws designed to exclude them on the grounds (among others) that they were unwilling and unable to assimilate. As the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized in rejecting a challenge to one of the infamous exclusion laws, which effectively prohibited immigration from China, “It seemed impossible for [the Chinese] to assimilate with our people or to make any change in their habits or modes of living.” Similarly, the Court justified internment of Japanese Americans during World War II on the grounds that “social, economic, and political conditions… have intensified [Japanese] solidarity and in large measure prevented their assimilation as an integral part of the white population.”

Like other people of color, Latinos in the United States have found it difficult to assimilate into the mainstream, whether they immigrated to this country or were born here. Whereas a German of Irish American finds relatively easy acceptance into the culture, Latinos are often treated as unwelcome outsiders looking to cash in on America’s bounty. As a group, even those with deep roots and a long history in the United States have not fully assimilated, despite the government’s efforts at various times to “Americanize” them. One need look no further than the many separate and unequal Latino communities in the U.S. cities for evidence that assimilation over time, intermarriage and racial mixture have occurred for centuries, yet Latinos and other minorities remain outside the political and economic mainstream.

Anti-immigration advocates accuse today’s immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, of refusing to assimilate by maintaining their language and culture and by living in separate enclaves. Latino intellectuals like Linda Chávez and Richard Rodriguez have added fuel to the fire by criticizing Latino leaders who encourage ethnic separation.

The attacks of pro-assimilationists notwithstanding, Latin American immigrants have in fact assimilated and adapted, in varying degrees, to life in the United States, often against the odds….Like African Americans, however, Latinos have not achieved full political or economic integration. Physcal, cultural, and linguistic differences present major obstacles to the acceptance of today’s immigrants by the dominant culture. In fact, the latest cohort of Asian and Latin American immigrants must surmount many of the same hurdles faced by Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the past. Even as the new immigrants acculturate, Anglo society continues to view Latinos, with their Spanish language and surnames, their non-Anglo-Saxon culture, and their different physical appearance, as foreign, different, “other.”

Complete assimilation may not be possible even for Latinos, like myself, of mixed backgrounds who do not necessarily “look” Latino. As Greg Williams and Judy Trent-Scales have shown in writing about their experiences as fair-skinned African-Americans, it is not easy to wash your hands of your background. For me, being raised by a Chicana and growing up with Latinos made blending into the Anglo mainstream a stressful experience. There is always the danger that comments made in my presence will irritate, hurt, or simply make me uncomfortable…. Some Anglos may see me as part of their club and assume that I will join them in baiting those inferior Mexican “foreigners.”

Latinos of unmixed background can have similar experiences. My wife was once paid the “compliment” in college that she did not “look” Mexican. What exactly did this remark mean? That Virginia was light-skinned and Mexicans were supposed to be dark? That she was attractive and Mexicans were not? That Mexicans look “different” but Virginia looked “normal?” Whatever the intentions of the speaker, the comment was offensive and she never forgot it.

Diversity within the Latino community helps explain why some Latinos may find it easier than others to assimilate. Phenotype is an important assimilation variable, and assimilation is usually easier for fairer-skinned Latinos than for others. They shed their “foreignness” and blend into the crowd more easily than the more indigenous-looking. Fair-skinned Cuban Americans, for example, have found it easier than other Latino national origin groups to assimilate economically, politically, and socially. Puerto Ricans, in contrast, some of whom are black, are the least likely Latino group to be assimilate in these ways. In many Mexican Americans, “the Indian racial types predominate. Most have dark complexions and black hair, traits inherited in large part from their Indian ancestors. But many are blond, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned, while others have red hair and hazel eyes.”

Until racial and cultural background becomes as “transparent” as whiteness, it seems that full assimilation will be impossible. But is such “transparency” really desirable? To assimilate fully, people of Latino ancestry would have to ignore or eliminate any consciousness of their cultural background and heritage and strive to be “white.” Some Latinos are more willing to attempt this than others. One can only wonder about the damage to an individual’s psyche that results from living a hidden life, suppressing a Latino identity while fearing that someone may discover that you are an impostor.

Mexican immigrants have a unique experience among Latinos in that the United States and Mexico share a border more than 1,000 miles long. This geographical proximity has enabled a large population of unnaturalized Mexican immigrants to live in the United States. Although some of them have assimilated to some degree culturally and otherwise, they have not become integrated into the political process. Though recent revisions to Mexican law permitting dual nationality may change this, significant numbers of Mexican immigrants view naturalization and U.S. citizen ship as a betrayal of one’s Mexican nationality and heritage.

A considerable body of academic commentary has addressed the voluntary adoption of a racial or ethnic identity…. As Ken Karst has observed, “identity itself is a myth—a myth of origin, or destiny, or both. We ‘make up people,’ inventing categories, giving each category not only a label but an imagined history and an imagined behavioral script—and then deciding Yes or No, whether particular individuals should be assigned to the category.”

Inventing an identity, however, is not always an option; there are limits to the identities one can choose. “In every circumstance choices are exercised not by free agents or autonomous actors, but by people who are compromised and constrained by the social context.” Indeed, minorities of certain phenotypes have a racial identity thrust upon them. A dark-skinned African American and a fair-complexioned Latino simply do not have the same identity choices available to them. Society treats those with dark skin as “black” regardless of how they see themselves, but may treat the fair Latino as white.

Even when identity choice does exist, it is not without limits. Finding and becoming comfortable with one’s racial identity is probably one of the most difficult things a member of a racial minority will ever face. Denial of one’s background exacts a psychological toll that may outweigh the benefits of the higher status and prestige accorded to whiteness. But it is not difficult to understand why many mixed and fair-skinned Latinos choose a white identity. Those who embrace their Latino identity face many costs and few concrete benefits.

Besides the emotional turmoil involved in coming to grips with one’s background, identity selection exposes a person to the judgment of others. Latinos risk rejection for refusing to assimilate, challenges to their Latino authenticity, and accusations of trying to cash in on affirmative action benefits. The constant questioning by others of my own identity takes an emotional toll. Rarely a day goes by that my identity is not called into question. Many people assume that I am white because of my surname and appearance and openly wonder how it is possible that a Latino could be named Johnson, how I could have children named Teresa, Tomás and Elena, or why I am so interested in “Latino issues.”

As this book attests, I exercised a good deal of choice in embracing a Mexican-American identity. Born with light skin and an Anglo surname, I have been able to “pass: as white in many settings. There have been times when I could have hidden my background or simply pretended that I was white without raising an eyebrow. At times in my life, such as at the law firm, I have been more or less oblivious to my Mexican ancestry and have simply done my work. Still, to say that I had free choice would be an overstatement. I grew up with a Mexican-American mother and grandmother and until the seventh grade lived in a mixed working-class white and Mexican-American community. To deny that part of my background and life history would have been painful, if not impossible.
Latino diversity
Latinos in the United States are extremely heterogeneous and include person of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Central American, and other Latin-American ancestry…. Discrimination based on physical appearance varies greatly among Latinos. While a relatively minor problem for some, it looms larger in the lives of Latinos with more indigenous appearances. Mexican Americans who fit the stereotype—dark-skinned with indigenous features—are more likely than other Mexican Americans to be stopped, questioned, or worse, by immigration authorities in border communities. Having the physical appearance of a stereotypical Mexican can lead to distinctly “special” treatment. In one highly publicized incident, the Border Patrol stopped Eddie Cortez, a third generation Mexican American who happened to be the conservative Republican mayor of a small southern California city, because he fit the “profile” of an “illegal alien.”

Though light-skinned Mexican Americans are usually not subjected to the same level of harassment, they may suffer “micro-aggressions,” such as having racial insults made in their presence. They may also be disparaged by fellow Mexican Americans as “gabachos,” slang for Anglos. Rejection by Latinos does not necessarily mean acceptable by Anglos, or vice versa, and light-skinned Mexican Americans often feel trapped in a no-man’s land, belonging to neither world.

Black-skinned Latinos face an entirely different set of assimilation obstacles. They cannot “pass” as white and are often seen not as Latino but as African American, with the harsh stigma U.S. society attaches to being black. Black Latinos, as some Puerto Ricans and Cubans have learned, find it difficult to assimilate and are, on the average, less well off socioeconomically than other persons of Latin American ancestry in the United States.

Latino diversity causes practical problems that must be addressed with respect to affirmative action and related programs. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has pointed out, one federal agency was required “to trace an applicant’s family history to 1492 to conclude that the applicant was ‘Hispanic’ for purposes of a minority tax certificate policy.” Assuming that race will be a factor in future governmental programs, other questions arise. Should differences within the Latino community affect eligibility for affirmative action programs? Specifically, should immigrants from Latin America—as opposed to Latino citizens—be eligible for affirmative actions? These and related questions raise potentially divisive issues for the Latino community. For example, Mexican Americans whose families have lived in this country for generations may have a stronger claim to remedial affirmative action than do immigrants from Latin America. At the same time, inequities may result when Latino immigrants are eligible for affirmative action programs designed to remedy pervasive systemic discrimination against African Americans.


What’s it all mean for race relations in the United States?
The lessons to be learned from the history of race relations in this country obviously are not limited to Latinos alone. Issues of race in the modern United States have become increasingly complex. If there ever was a black-and-white world demarcated by slavery and freedom, we no longer live there. Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and other racially subordinated peoples all press for redress of civil rights violations, sometimes even vying with each other for relief. Society often pits their demands against each other, sometimes with violent results, as when complex African American, Korean, and Latino tensions—which the media analyzed in terms of African American and Korean conflict—boiled over in South Central Los Angeles in May 1992. If society continues to ignore the cries of the oppressed in the United States, we will, in all likelihood, see this violent episode repeated.

Many people view race relations as a static hierarchy, with blacks at the bottom, whites at the top, and other groups in between. However, race relations in the multiracial, multicultural United States constantly shift and change, ebb and flow depending on the social, political, and economic circumstances of the day. Those who are serious about social change must seek to understand how the complexities operate as a whole in maintaining racial subordination.

The interrelationship between the subordination of various minority groups can be seen throughout history. In the 1880s, whites and blacks, enjoying political rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, joined forces to pass the laws preventing Chinese immigration to the United States. A hundred years later, Asian Americans became the “model minority” in this country, which many whites took as proof that the poverty of African Americans and Latinos is their own fault.

Despite the complexities, the media, social commentators, and academics have traditionally focused attention on civil rights issues as conflict between African Americans and whites. In light of the legacy of chattel slavery in the United States, the subsequent reign of Jim Crow, and modern, more subtle forms of discrimination against African Americans, the traditional focus is understandable. To achieve racial justice in the United States, however, the subordination of other peoples of color—Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities—must be accounted for in the national civil rights debate. As the controversy surrounding President Clinton’s race relations committee revealed, this project may at times cause tension among minority communities. However, continued treatment of civil rights issues as black and white will exacerbate, not reduce, tensions.

Inter-ethnic conflict, whether Asian against African American, Latino against Asian, or some other variation, has proven time and again to be counterproductive. Such hostilities divert important energy that should be focused on the true source of the problem. Latinos should know that African Americans and Asian Americans are not responsible for their place in the social hierarchy. Similarly, African Americans and Asian Americans must know that Latinos cannot be blamed for their social and political status. Minority coalitions must be built that will move beyond racial divisiveness and work to change the racial status quo.

In analyzing issues of race in the modern United States, we also must keep in mind that racial questions go beyond skin color. As many have argued persuasively, race is a social, not a biological, construction. The United States has seen the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of races at various times in its history. At various points in this nation’s history, U.S. society has classified Irish and Jewish immigrants as distinctly different and inferior “races.” Similarly, society has vacillated in its treatment of Latinos, specifically Mexican Americans, sometimes classifying them as white without the privileges that typically accrue to whiteness.

[Many] assimilationists trust that intermarriage and racial mixture will result in racial harmony in the twenty-first century. Increasing numbers of multiracial people undoubtedly will blur racial lines. But history (in the United States and throughout the world) suggests that racism will not die a quick or easy death. This nation has a long history of racial classification and discrimination, even when, as in the case of nineteenth-century Irish and Eastern European immigrants, “racial” differences are subtle or non-existent. Rather than the demise of racism, the increase of multiracial people may result in new forms of racial subordination. Society will construct new races, perhaps based on lightness or darkness of skin color, language, culture, or religion. The bloody war in Bosnia in the 1990s, to name just one of the ethnic and racial conflicts going on around the world, offers a chilling possibility.

Ultimately, assimilation is much more complicated that the optimistic pro-assimilationists would have it. Even minorities who appear white, and therefore face many fewer obstacles to acceptance and assimilation than their darker-skinned brothers and sisters, cannot always forget their pasts—nor should they be required to as a condition of social acceptance. Even many of those who wish to do so must resign themselves to living in a quasi-white status, with some of the benefits of whiteness and many of the costs of their racial and cultural ancestry. I have experienced this ambiguity in my life on the border between two worlds, belonging partly to each but fully to neither.



For many racial minorities, full assimilation into dominant Anglo-Saxon society is impossible, and so they have opted to establish a peaceful place of their own, adopting a multicultural outlook as a positive response to the limits of assimilation. Despite centuries of coexistence of African American and white people in the Unites States, blacks remain largely outside the political and economic mainstream. Asian Americans and Latinos have faced similar though different experiences. While it is in many ways tantalizing, full-fledged assimilation is not likely, much less inevitable, for many racial minorities. Of course, some blacks, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have joined the middle and upper classes and assimilated through intermarriage. Many, however, have not. To blame them for remaining unassimilated is to ignore the racism that permeates U.S. history and society.

This book, I hope, is one of the first installments in the study of the complexity of the Latino community in the United States. This study is long overdue, given the dramatic changes that have taken place over the course of the twentieth century. The Latino community for all too long has remained invisible and forgotten in society’s attempt to address civil rights. Ultimately, to ensure racial justice and to avoid civil unrest and mass discontent, we must address the grievances of the Latino community. The alternatives, including the outburst of violence seen in the wake of the Rodney King verdict in 1992, should be sobering for us all. Only time will tell whether this nation will live up to its reputation as the bellwether of freedom, equality, and justice for all.

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