‘Shut up, you stupid Mexican!”
The words spewed from the mouth of a pale, freckle-faced boy, taunting me on our elementary school playground.
I wish I could recall what I said to inspire the insult. But more than three decades later, I remember only my reply. “Stupid Peruvian,” I pointed out, wagging my finger.
My family had emigrated from Lima to Northern California a few years earlier, so my nationality was a point of fact (whereas my stupidity remains a matter of opinion). The response so confused my classmate that my first encounter with prejudice ended as quickly as it started. Recess resumed.
Today, my grade-school preoccupation with nationality feels a bit quaint. Peruvian or Mexican — does it even matter? We’re all Latinos now.
And don’t call us stupid. Latinos have become coveted, exciting, DREAMy. In the 2012 election, the Hispanic vote helped propel President Obama (71 percent) over Mitt Romney (27 percent). When politicians ride Hispanic ancestry to presidential short lists and convention keynote slots, when a stalemated Congress has a shot at immigration reform because Democrats need to keep us and Republicans need to woo us, and when Univision beats NBC in prime-time ratings, you know that America’s 51 million Latinos are officially marketable, clickable, unignorable. And if you’ve written a dissertation arguing that we’re dumber than white Americans, you’ll lose your job. Even at the Heritage Foundation, no se puede.
The attention is nice, I admit. Our background as immigrants or descendants of immigrants is no longer considered a liability; in the wonderful reductionism of American politics, it’s a great story.
But it’s a story with an odd plot twist: It’s not evident what being Latino — or Hispanic or hispano, take your pick — truly means, and most Hispanics, it turns out, don’t even identify with the term.
Is being Latino a matter of geography, as simple as where you or your ancestors came from? Is it the language you speak or how well you speak it? Is it some common culture? Or is it just a vaguely brown complexion and a last name ending in “a,” “o” or “z”? Politicians build Latino-voter-outreach operations, businesses launch marketing campaigns to attract Hispanic “super-consumers,” yet depending on whom you ask — politicians, academics, journalists, activists, researchers or pollsters — contradictory definitions and interpretations emerge.
If all ethnic identities are created, imagined or negotiated to some degree, American Hispanics provide an especially stark example. As part of an effort in the 1970s to better measure who was using what kind of social services, the federal government established the word “Hispanic” to denote anyone with ancestry traced to Spain or Latin America, and mandated the collection of data on this group. “The term is a U.S. invention,” explains Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “If you go to El Salvador or the Dominican Republic, you won’t necessarily hear people say they are ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic.’ ”
You may not hear it much in the United States, either. According to a 2012 Pew survey, only about a quarter of Hispanic adults say they identify themselves most often as Hispanic or Latino. About half say they prefer to cite their family’s country of origin, while one-fifth say they use “American.” (Among third-generation Latinos, nearly half identify as American.)
The Office of Management and Budgetdefines a Hispanic as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race” — about as specific as calling someone European.
“There is no coherence to the term,” says Marta Tienda, a sociologist and director of Latino studies at Princeton University. For instance, even though it’s officially supposed to connote ethnicity and nationality rather than race — after all, Hispanics can be black, white or any other race — the term “has become a racialized category in the United States,” Tienda says. “Latinos have become a race by default, just by usage of the category.”
So, being Hispanic might be about national origin, or it might be about race, or it might involve some combination that Hispanics define for themselves, if they even use the term, which most don’t.
Or is it about a pan-Latino culture?
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, listed its basic elements: “Culturally, we’re bound by language, a common affection for Spanish — even though we learn English,” she told me. “Strong faith, strong family, strong sense of community. These are values we hold in common.”
Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based strategy consultant on Hispanic politics and media, agrees that a Latino culture exists but defines it entirely differently. It’s “not really language or the Catholic Church, or that we come from this country or that,” he said. It is “a culture that gives tremendous weight to human relationships and the celebration of life; you are free to show your emotion, more than suppress your emotion. That is what really unites all Hispanics.”
If most Hispanics are united in something, though, it’s a belief that they don’t share a common culture. The Pew Hispanic Center finds that nearly seven in 10 Hispanics say they comprise “many different cultures” rather than a single one. “But when journalists, researchers or the federal government talk about” Latinos, Lopez acknowledges, “they talk about a single group.”
The absence of a unifying culture makes even more sense as the Latino community evolves and spreads. The days when Hispanics could be broken down largely as Mexican American migrant workers in the Southwest, Puerto Ricans in New York and Cuban Americans in South Florida are vanishing. Salvadorans are catching up with Cubans as the third-largest Latino group in the nation, for instance. And guess the four states where the Hispanic population grew fastest over the past decade: South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Minnesota.
Even the Spanish language is losing its power as a cultural marker for this community. About 80 percent of U.S. Hispanics say they read or speak Spanish “very well” or “pretty well,” according to Pew, but only 38 percent claim it as their primary language, while another 38 percent say they are bilingual, and 24 percent say English is their dominant tongue. By the third generation, nearly seven in 10 Latinos say they are English-dominant. Little surprise that the latest battleground for Hispanic media companies is over the English-speaking Latino market.
Is fluency in Spanish a precondition for full Latino-ness? If so, then people such as Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Democratic San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro would not be in the club.
I, for one, would not presume to revoke their membership.
If neither language nor race nor a common culture is enough to define or unite us, perhaps politics can help.
A stark vision of a Latino political identity emerged last month from former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who suggested to ABC News that Sen. Ted Cruz, a Cuban American and conservative Republican from Texas, should not be “defined as a Hispanic” because he doesn’t support immigration reform. Soon afterward, Richardson told Fox News that it was a misunderstanding: “All I was saying is, I don’t consider myself just a Hispanic, and he shouldn’t be defined just as a Hispanic. We’re other things.”
Yes, the notion of a political litmus test for Hispanic identity seems bizarre. But Richardson’s words made clear how, in the political world, that identity has evolved from a broad ethnic and cultural category to include an implied liberal sensibility.
For Republicans, the challenge appears straightforward. In his breakdown of the GOP’s shortcomings in March, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus emphasized the need to elevate Latino leaders in the party, cultivate Latino media outlets and craft a message on immigration that considers “the unique perspective of the Hispanic community.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has put the GOP’s plight more bluntly: “We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party,” he said on “Meet the Press” last week, “and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
Fix immigration and Hispanics will love you. Simple, right?
“The great problem for the Republican Party with Hispanics is not about immigration,” Bendixen counters. “The problem is that they’re looking at a Hispanic electorate that is further to the left than just about any group. They believe strongly in a government role in the economy and basically in every aspect of life — national health insurance, social services, a government role in creating jobs.”
In a 2012 survey, Pew found that immigration reform was not the key issue for registered Latino voters. When asked what subjects they considered “extremely important,” Hispanics rated education, the economy, health care and even the budget deficit before immigration.
Not that different from the rest of America.
Nearly a decade ago, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote a biting 6,000-word essay in Foreign Policy magazine arguing that Latino immigrants threatened America’s “cultural and political integrity.” Titled “The Hispanic Challenge,” the article elicited countless responses in the national and international media, accusations of racism, and much scowling at Washington think tanks. Nearly a decade later, it is still ritually flogged in debates over immigration.
A confession: I helped make that essay happen. As a Foreign Policy editor at the time, I worked with Huntington over several weeks as we prepared the piece for publication. In our many phone conversations and e-mail exchanges, he never asked if the piece offended me, and I never asked if he was uncomfortable that some guy named Carlos was editing him. (The closest we came to broaching the subject: Half in jest, I suggested one day that we use “Jose, can you see?” as one of the sub-headlines in the piece. He paused on the phone and then deadpanned, “No way, Jose!”)
Looking back, I wonder why I wasn’t more offended by his arguments. Part of it is the editor’s trade; over the years, I’ve likely worked on hundreds of essays I disagree with. But maybe I didn’t think Huntington was really writing about me. I didn’t identify with the label.
Sure, I’ll check the “Hispanic origin” box on official documents — doing so feels less wrong than not — but other aspects of my identity, whether my birthplace, my faith, my alma mater, my profession, or my roles as a father, husband, son or brother have all felt more vital at different moments. A pan-Latino identity is too broad to feel essential. I read Latin American novelists and speak to my kids in Spanish, but as Richardson might say, I’m also other things.
Besides, others play identity politics for me. I’m Hispanic when census forms and my children’s birth certificate documents nudge me to choose. I’m Hispanic when junk mail arrives at my house trumpeting special offers for my Irish American wife and ofertas especiales for me. I’m Hispanic when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come knocking on my door with a pitch for salvation ready in Spanish. I’m Hispanic in America because people I don’t know have decided that is what I am.
There is one moment, however, when assuming the Latino label feels right, even urgent. When the political debates over immigration turn ugly, when talk of self-deportation and racial-profiling laws and anchor babies permeates campaigns, the distinctions and nuances seem to dissipate.
“When one of us is under attack, we identify, we come together,” Murguia says. “When one of us is singled out because of their accent, their skin color, our people come together out of a sense of justice. People say, ‘That can be me.’ ”
This is why the anti-Latino sentiment that has emerged in some quarters of American politics is self-defeating. It fosters unity among the otherwise disparate peoples it targets. It strengthens, even creates, the very identity it seeks to dislodge.
“The meaning of Hispanicity is not identifiable by culture or language, but by experiences of inclusion or exclusion, by opportunities for education, whether they can live the American dream,” explains Princeton’s Tienda. “Are they a class apart, or are they going to be part of all the classes?”
Read more from Outlook:
Five myths about Latino voters
How did we build an immigrant movement? We learned from gay rights advocates.
Friend us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Only 10 minutes away from the beaches of Acapulco, a world of extortion and killing thrives. Coroners carry a body through Barranca de la Laja, an impoverished neighborhood with few roads, that clings to a hillside. The body, decapitated and with the legs dismembered, was buried in the floor of a residence in the chronically violent neighborhood. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
I grew up traveling to Mexico. It was an easy trip into Baja from Ventura County, Calif., my home. We would camp on desert points and surf for days. I always found the dusty peninsula and the country as a whole surprising, welcoming and exciting. It was not until the series of trips I took there in 2017 with Josh Partlow, our Mexico bureau chief, that I truly felt afraid. Afraid for my safety. Afraid for what Mexico had become.
The assignment started with a text from my editor, Nick Kirkpatrick, asking if I wanted to travel to a “sketchy narco zone,” in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most violent states. The stories I had read about Mexican journalists being assassinated throughout the country for covering the violence and cartels were numerous. The country is second only to Syria in the number of journalists being killed on the job. But this is Mexico, a country and people I admire and respect. I knew with proper planning this was a story I wanted to photograph.
We started in the “Tierra Caliente,” or Hot Land, an opium-producing region in the mountains of Guerrero that provides drugs to sustain America’s heroin habit. This is a place where impoverished rural towns are terrorized by drug lords with names like “El Pez,” the Big Fish, and “El Tequilero,” a name that needs no translation. We met the relatives of the murdered, victims of multiple kidnappings, and vigilante groups that took up arms to protect their neighbors. It became obvious this was only a chapter of a larger story.
We witnessed a mustachioed cartel member carrying an assault rifle beating a man senseless in Acapulco, the world’s second most dangerous city according to homicide statistics. The once posh resort town is now a narrow beach strip frequented mostly by Mexican tourists and semi-abandoned neighborhoods ruled by gangs and violence.
In the border town of Tijuana, I met Cesar, a 27-year-old heroin addict who had started using at 18, the year his mother had committed suicide. Fluent in English and Spanish and boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of music, Cesar seemed to have charm and the ability to be successful. Instead, gripped by addiction, he is emblematic of the skyrocketing domestic drug use now present in Mexico.
Cesar Corona stumbles after injecting a “Belushi,” a combination of methamphetamine and heroin, into his neck at El Bordo, a desolate area populated by addicts and the homeless in Tijuana, Mexico. Corona, 27, says he has been addicted to methamphetamine and heroin since his mother committed suicide when he was 18. “It is my only escape,” he says.
Jalisco is one of Mexico’s most prosperous states. It is dominated by Jalisco Nueva Generacíon, now considered the country’s most powerful cartel. We found ourselves at the scene of a homicide. Luz Margarita Ramirez Gallardo had survived two gunshots to the head a month ago, on the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday. Now she was dead, slumped in the seat of a van outside her home in Guadalajara. The hit men came back to finish the job they had failed to complete the first time.
Drug demand remains high in the United States and these areas of Mexico suffer greatly trying to fulfill that need.
A Mexican soldier throws opium poppies onto a fire during an eradication operation in the growing region of Iyotla, Guerrero, Mexico. Mexico has become a the largest source of heroin for the United States market, fueling a surge in violence in the state of Guerrero. Military operations offer scant reassurance to local residents. “This is a land without law,” said a businessman who works in the region.
A boy rides in a pickup truck past an “auto defensa,” or self-defense group, checkpoint in the town of San Miguel Totolapan, Mexico. The town has been the scene of pitched battles between “El Tequilero” and “El Pez,” leaders of two rival drug gangs. The lack of police or military order have driven locals to form their own defense forces. A whole generation of Mexicans are growing up with homicides and cartel conflicts as part of their daily lives.
Gathering outside a home where a young man was murdered, friends and relatives mourn in Colonia Santa Cruz, a violent neighborhood of Acapulco, Mexico. The dominant drug cartel in Acapulco broke up 10 years ago. The criminals now in charge resemble neighborhood gangs — with names like 221 or Los Locos. Acapulco, once a playground for celebrities, is ranked as the second most dangerous city in the world.
Mexico’s border region is suffering spikes in violence. A funeral home owner said that business in Tijuana is up by 300 percent over last year. Drug overdoses have affected the death rate, too. Tijuana is on pace to record its most violent year in the city’s history. Carrying a new casket, a man walks past two students playing outside their home.
Many Mexicans, like this family celebrating a wedding in Iguala, Guerrero, are struggling to retain a sense of normalcy in their daily life as drug gangs ravage the area, battling for dominance in the opium market. Iguala is the location where 43 students disappeared in 2014. The whereabouts of all but one remain a mystery.
A woman descends a staircase in a hillside neighborhood of Tijuana, Mexico. Unlike previous narco wars that plagued Tijuana, the violence these days is confined largely to poverty-stricken neighborhoods that ring the city. Drug use and addiction is rising quickly. “In my world, everyone uses,” one addict in a local rehab said.
Days after Luz Margarita Ramirez Gallardo was killed, her friends and family mourn her loss, including her mother, left, and Eulalia Fernandez, center, a longtime family friend. The statue of a saint was lent by a local church to offer the family comfort. Ramirez was killed by a shot to the head in front of her home, in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Dec. 5. “Everyone is afraid,” said Ramirez’s mother, who asked that her name not be used.
Guadalajara, like most of Mexico’s cities and towns, is suffering under a high homicide rate. Many of the shootings are between the Sinaloa cartel and Jalisco Nueva Generacíon which are battling over control of the city’s southern neighborhoods. A man, shot through the shoulder during a drive-by attack , is assisted to an ambulance by his parents. Many citizens have little faith in the police.
A cross stands watch over the dangerous neighborhood of Colonia Santa Cruz in Acapulco, Mexico. Many residents, exhausted by the violence and gripped by fear, have given up on their homes, fleeing to the United States or other parts of Mexico, leaving abandoned businesses and residences in their wake.
From a municipal bus window, passengers stare at a crime scene where a woman was shot to death in the San Carlos neighborhood of Guadalajara, Mexico. The woman, Luz Margarita Ramirez Gallardo, 35, was shot in the head while sitting in her car outside her home in the middle of the day. Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, is dominated by Jalisco Nueva Generacíon, now considered Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel.
Aldo Monjardin, left, a district commander with the Guadalajara police, looks in the backpack of a suspected methamphetamine addict who was accosting people on the city’s south side. Monjardin noted the rise in drug addiction in the area and increasing violence.
To help quell the kidnappings and violence in their towns, citizens have formed “auto defensa,” or self-defense groups. The line between cartel members and auto defensa groups can be ambiguous, with former members of each joining the other’s ranks. Some auto defensa members jump onto a road outside the town of San Miguel Totolapan, Mexico, which was the scene of pitched battles between “El Tequilero” and “El Pez,” leaders of two rival drug gangs that grow opium in the region.
Maurilio Mendoza, comforting his niece, recounts a story of how he was twice kidnapped by drug gangs. Mendoza says it is a common occurrence among the population of Guerrero’s “Tierra Caliente,” or Hot Land. It is the heart of Guerrero’s opium growing region. Mendoza lives in Santa Rosa de Lima, one of the area’s small towns that lies on the battle lines between drug gangs.
A young man, part of an auto defensa force, stands at his post in Teloloapan, Guerrero, part of the Tierra Caliente region. Slowly, the region’s economy is being asphyxiated by the criminal groups. Business owners say that vendors of mangos, cucumbers and other produce must pay cartels one peso — about 5 cents — per kilogram they sell. Restaurants needing chicken meat are forced to buy from gang-specified suppliers. Extortion is rampant in all aspects of the local economies.
Guillermo Perez, watchful and paranoid, drives his taxi through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Acapulco, Mexico. Taxi drivers are killed at an alarming rate by the various gangs and cartels that battle in the once popular seaside resort. Many taxi drivers are employed as “halcones,” or hawks in Spanish. This is slang for lookouts, employed by gangs to inform them about who is entering their territories. They are often the first targets when one group invades another group’s territory.
Municipal police look for spent shell casings at the scene of a homicide in Acapulco, Mexico. While homicides are plentiful in the once popular seaside city, convictions or arrests are nearly nonexistent. Residents complain that there is rarely even an investigation into the murders of their loved ones. Here, residents walked through the crime scene unimpeded.
A man shot and wounded during a drive-by attack, is attended to in an ambulance in Guadalajara, Mexico. Guadalajara, like most of Mexico’s cities and towns, is plagued by a high homicide rate. Many of the shootings are between the Sinaloa cartel and Jalisco Nueva Generacíon.
A woman smokes a cigarette, one of three she is allowed per day, at Casa Corazon, a drug rehabilitation center in Tijuana. “Drug use has exploded here in an incredible way,” said Florina Righetti Rojo, who runs the rehab center for women in Tijuana. “What has this brought us? How many dead?”
In Mexico, The Price of America’s Hunger for Heroin
Acapulco is Now Mexico’s Murder Capital
Mexico’s Drug Trade Hits Home
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.