So, what is a “white Hispanic”? It seems to be a term most Americans can’t wrap their heads around, and no wonder. They have no clue what an Hispanic or Latino is to begin with.
Most of us think of race as comprising one of three groups – to use the colloquial terms, white, black and Asian. But within those three broad categories are dozens of, pardon the term, sub-species. Human beings are similar to any other animal on the planet. There are felines, and within that designation of feline, there are big cats, medium cats and small cats. And within those small cats there are American Shorthairs and Persians. Humans are the same way.
Native Americans are racial Asians, sub-species Amerind. There are even sub-species within those sub-species. But, for Latin Americans, that is the starting point.
Along came those Spanish conquistadors and their very small armies. They conquered Latin America, but never colonized it to the extent that the English, French and Germans colonized North America. The actual termination of colonial rule was not nearly as important as the absence of mass immigration. The United States and Canada attracted Europeans who were disenfranchised at home, either through religious affiliation or the hereditary class structure. Latin America, which was still under Spanish and Portugese rule for decades after America became liberated, did not attract groups of Europeans who didn’t want to trade what they had known in Europe for the same structure on a strange continent, and one that was so totally different in climate and environment. There were only two things the conquerors were very good at – imposing Catholicism and the Spanish and Portugese languages.
There was a separate immigration to Latin America and the Caribbean, from Africa. Because the native populations of the Caribbean Islands were decimated by conquest and disease and the natives of Brazil were really good at disappearing, the Europeans brought in Africa slaves to work their plantations
There were basically two classes of Spaniards and Portugese who came to Latin America – the upper class who were the leaders of the military and the government, and the lower class who were the foot soldiers. The foot soldiers were not provided with wives from their native land, as the French soldiers in Canada were, so they married Native women and created a whole middle racial group – the mestizos or mix-bloods. Eventually, they became the base of the middle class. The Spanish upper class remained in that position right up through the beginning of the twentieth century, when the middle class rose to political power. The Mexican Civil War was fought on these racial lines.
There was another element to life south of the Rio Grande that most North Americans don’t know about. National borders were ignored to a large extent, treated as what they are – man-made lines of political jurisdiction having no relationship to real life. They were useful for tax collectors, but did not control where people lived to any great degree. If you were a Chilean ambassador who decided to retire to the Dominican Republic, as my grandmother’s uncle was, no one questioned it.
There are some sub-species, ethnic divisions on the Iberian peninsula that need to be explained as well. Iberia has a long history of conquest and occupation. The final result was a literal division of the peninsula into areas where the majority population reflected an invading group. Along the western sea coast, Portugal and the old Spanish province of Galicia were the Celt-Iberians, some of whom were the last great Celtic invaders of Ireland in pre-Christian times. The rest of northern Spain was dominated by the Germanic tribes who invaded around the third century C.E. In the center and south were the remnants of the Phoenicians, Romans and Moors. Celt-Iberians look Irish, the way my grandparents did – fair skinned, light eyed, blonde and red-headed. The Gothic-Spanish look German, blonde and blue-eyed. England’s Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was half Celt-Iberian and half Gothic-Spanish, and a red-head. Everyone else pretty much looks like what Americans think of when they think of Spaniards – like Antonio Banderas. And in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France there are the Basques, a whole other ethnic and language group.
Have you got all that? You need to, because, surprise!, understanding those divisions is essential to understanding the basic racism that exists in Latin America. Latin Americans are just as prone to racism as North Americans. The Spanish and Portugese brought along their internal bigotries, and then layered the native population and mestizos below that.
So, a white Hispanic is any person who was born in Latin America or is descended from Latin Americans but is of pure European heritage. John Wayne’s first wife was a white Panamanian. My grandparents were white Chilean and Puerto Rican.
The late Ricardo Montalban was a white Mexican. Most people remember him from Fantasy Island or from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, but he was at the center of one of the few temper tantrums my father ever threw about the perceptions of North Americans toward Latin Americans.
In 1957, Montalban opened on Broadway in the musical Jamaica, starring opposite Lena Horne. There was some reaction to the casting, but it was low-key and mostly confined to hate mail that Montalban personally received. Five years later, Richard Kiley was cast opposite Diahann Carroll in No Strings. All hell broke loose. The press was filled with both opposition and support for the casting of a white man and a black woman as romantic leads. Dad’s tantrum included the words “What the hell do people think Montalban is?” He wasn’t too thrilled with the movie Anne of a Thousand Days either, because the producer cast Greek actress Irene Papas as Katherine of Aragon, going with the stereotype that all Spaniards are dark and ignoring the fact that Katherine was a red-head. It wasn’t that my Dad was a bigot, in fact he was one of the most color-blind people I ever knew. He just objected to Americans not understanding that Latin Americans are as diverse as North Americans. He truly felt that the casting of Ricardo Montalban opposite Lena Horne should have infuriated racists as much as the casting of Richard Kiley against Diahann Carroll.
On the other end of the entertainment industry stupid range was the reaction when Robert Beltran was cast as a Native American on Star Trek: Voyager. Native Americans objected, saying that the role of Chakotay should have gone to a Native American. Beltran’s response was priceless – “Mexicans are Native Americans,” followed by a few choice words about the intelligence level and education of North Americans. It’s a weird twist on bigotry, how the Native Americans of the United States have a hard time understanding that the border between Mexico and the U. S. cut through the territories of eleven different native tribes.
The press has labeled George Zimmerman a “white Hispanic.” It is a misnomer. His mother is Peruvian, but we have no idea where she fits on the Latin American spectrum of ethnic and racial identities. His father is Jewish. He was born in the United States Zimmerman should not be labeled as any particular race. The use of the term “white Hispanic” by the press in the Zimmerman-Martin case is an attempt to fit it neatly into the racial context of a hate crime. But the case should be giving us an opportunity to look at the nature of multi-ethnic and multi-racial identity, especially in the minority communities. When Alex Haley traveled to Africa to find the last links to his ancestor Kunta Kinte, he was surprised by how much darker true Africans are than African-Americans. He should not have been. He knew how many white ancestors he had. Racial identity can be, especially in the Western Hemisphere, as much a matter of self-identification as of actual genetics.
There was an episode of the old TV series Hill Street Blues in which Lt. Ray Calletano (played by Nicaraguan René Enríquez) is receiving an award. Instead of meekly thanking everyone, Calletano rips the proceedings apart, railing against the bigotry evident in the Mexican food being served because the white Americans don’t know Tierra del Fuego from the Isthmus of Panama. I was reminded of it when my boss, who is Puerto Rican, started talking about Thanksgiving. My grandfather may have been born on that island, but I was not raised in its culture. My grandmother, though born in Chile, was raised in England. My childhood was a mixture of cultural influences from England, Germany, German Judaism (Dad’s foster parents) and Italy (Mom’s aunt married one and gave birth to too many cousins to count).
Nothing has changed since 1986. Latin America, not including the Caribbean Islands, is a land mass only 642,322 square miles less than the United States and Canada, and has a population 158.6 million people larger than the U.S. and Canada combined. Calling everyone from that region “Hispanic” or “Latino” is wrong. We are not one color, one race, one ethnicity. We are as diverse as the residents of the United States and Canada. The one huge difference is that the Native Americans south of the Rio Grande didn’t end up on reservations. The vast majority of people living in the United States and Canada speak English. That doesn’t make us all English. The majority of the people south of the Rio Grande speak Spanish. That doesn’t make them Spanish. It is time we started understanding that.