Tag Archives: ethnicity

Spickland

“And why is it that when you’re dining here today to honor me as Hispanic Officer of the Year, I look around the room full of ranking officers, and the only other Hispanics I see are waiters and busboys?  As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your awards.” – René Enriquez, as Lte. Ray Calletano, “Hill Street Blues”, 1983

 

“A part of me wants to kick their ass.  A part of me feels sorry for their stupid ignorant selves.  But if you’ve never been farther south than Nuevo Laredo, how the hell would you know what Mexicans are supposed to look like?

There are green-eyed Mexicans.  The rich blond Mexicans.  The Mexicans with faces of Arab sheiks.  The Jewish Mexicans.  The big-footed-as-a-German Mexicans.  The leftover French-Mexicans.  The chaparrito compact Mexicans.  The Tarahumara tall-as-a-desert-saguaro Mexicans.  The Mediterranean Mexicans.  The Mexicans with Tunisian eyebrows.  The negrito Mexicans of the double coasts.  The Chinese Mexicans.  The curly-haired, freckle-faced, red-headed Mexicans.  The Lebanese Mexicans.  Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say I don’t look Mexican.  I am Mexican.  Even though I was born on the U.S. side of the border.” – Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo, Chapter 72. Copyright 2003, Vintage Books.

 

Recently FX Networks announced the premier of “Mayans MC,” a spinoff of their highly popular, award-winning “Sons of Anarchy.”  Airing from 2008 to 2014, “Sons of Anarchy” followed the lives of an outlaw motorcycle club in the fictional town of Charming, California.  Exploring government corruption, personal loyalty, racism, redemption and the vigilante spirit, it’s sort of what you’d get if the Hells Angels produced a show for the Hallmark Channel.  “Mayans MC” essentially continues the storyline, but with a Latino cultural flair.  While the real Mayans charted the night skies, these “Mayans” are drug runners who immediately encounter another gang, Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones).  They might as well have called it ‘Mean Ass Mexicans on Motorcycles.’  I guess not much has changed since 1983.

It’s slightly reminiscent of “Kingpin,” a severely short-lived series that dealt with “the machinations of an ambitious Mexican family . . . displayed in graphic detail as the family faces challenges from both the United States Drug Enforcement Agency and from the dangerous underworld in which they work.”  The show was the brainchild of the late David Mills, a “light-skinned black man whose racial identity was not always evident to those around him” and who “wrote white characters and black characters with equal zeal.”  Okay, great.  He may have placed Black and White folks on equal levels, but he kept Hispanics on the criminal platform.  There are more colors in the rainbow of equality than black and white.

The start of 2005 saw the debut of “Jonny Zero,” a Fox series about an ex-con named Jonny Calvo, played by the underwhelming Frankie G. (Gonzales), who returns to his old neighborhood to begin life anew.  He naturally finds it tough to stay on the right side of the law because his former employer seeks his tough-guy services to engage in new criminal activity, while the FBI wants him to snitch on that same former employer.  Decisions!  Decisions!  Aside from taking place in that most Latino of all American metropolises, New York City, “Jonny Zero” was also filmed there.  I presume that was meant to lend it a sense of gritty urban realism.  Fortunately, like “Kingpin”, “Jonny Zero” lasted all of a nano-second in TV land.

Even now, in this allegedly post-civil rights era America, Hispanics are still portrayed on television as gang bangers, maids and illegal immigrants.

In 2011, Demián Bichir received praise and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in “A Better Life”, the story of a Mexican immigrant father who chooses to remain in the U.S. and work as a gardener in Los Angeles.  His goal is simple: do for his kids what the movie’s title says to do.  It’s supposed to be melodramatic and sweet and, perhaps, make the case for a more sentimental view of illegal immigration.

In an interview last year, actor Benito Martinez lamented, “I had all these images of elegance and range and style, so when I, naively, was trying to build my career, those were my examples,” the soft-spoken Martinez says. “But what I was getting in the ‘80s as a young Latino actor was, ‘You’re going to be a gang member and you’re going to go in and rob the bank.’  I had to then learn about pigeonholing.  I had to learn the power of no.”

Martinez’s latest role?  A migrant laborer on a tomato farm on ABC’s “American Crime”.  The “power of no” often runs hard up against the need to pay bills and beef up a resume.  The show was cancelled last year.

Another ABC program, “Modern Family,” has been heralded as a depiction of America’s ethnic diversity.  But the main female character – portrayed by the immensely untalented Sofia Vergara – is yet another Hispanic trope: the sexpot.

Twenty years ago critics wondered aloud why the highly popular show “Friends” didn’t feature any Black characters, given that it took place in New York City.  Well, it didn’t have any Asian or Hispanic characters either.

Again, not much seems to have changed for Latinos in popular culture since 1983.  The late Lupe Ontiveros once calculated that she’d portrayed maids and housekeepers some 200 times in her 30+ years as a professional actress.  Yes, I’ve seen plenty of Hispanic housekeepers – have even known a few.  But most of the Hispanics I’ve seen and known throughout my life – even those outside my own family – have been well-educated, well-spoken, gainfully-employed, law-abiding, military-serving U.S. citizens.  These are MY people – not the illiterate wetbacks scurrying across the border at midnight or hyper-violent drug cartel leaders.  I’m not familiar with those latter groups.  I can’t identify with them.  Neither can most other Hispanic-Americans.

So why don’t we see more of us on television or in the movies?  I suppose my life as a 50-something freelance technical writer taking care of his elderly mother is too bland for the American entertainment – an industry still dominated by mostly White (usually Jewish) men.  And I won’t start a life of crime just to get attention and maybe a reality TV show!  Hell, that would cut into my writing time!

The ordinariness of the average Hispanic-American is perhaps why I had such a hard time getting my debut novel published.  Traditional publishing houses couldn’t see the reality in a book with Hispanic characters who are well-educated and speak perfect English.  Yes, one publisher actually told me that a little more than a decade ago!  That’s why I’ve resorted to self-publishing, which I’ll get to in a different essay.

The only way I see things changing for the general American perception of Hispanics – aside from letting the ‘Old Guard’ die off – is for Latinos to get angry.  Yes, just flat out pissed off and demand more AND better from the entertainment industry.  To some extent, that’s already happened with the cancellation of shows like “Kingpin” and “Jonny Zero”.  But we have to point out – forcefully – to TV and film producers that they don’t have a true understanding of who we all are.  Who we really are.  Stereotypes are pathetically old school and don’t have a place in 21st century societies.

Years ago some White people at my father’s workplace told him he wasn’t like “other Mexicans”; that he was “different.”  He honestly didn’t know what to make of it, but I did when he mentioned that to my mother and me at dinner one evening.  “They’re stereotyping you, Dad,” I told him.

 

Image: Erik De La Cruz, Latina Lista

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays

Maids, Beauty Queens and Other Stupidities

7517861_orig

Recently, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – trying desperately, yet involuntarily to retain his title as “Asshole of the Year” – defended his previous criticisms of 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado.  The Venezuelan-born Machado apparently had gained too much weight at the height of her reign for Trump’s taste and subsequently referred to her as “Miss Piggy.”  He later also dubbed her “Miss Housekeeping,” an obvious reference to her ethnic heritage.  While millions of women across the U.S. (and I’m quite certain, across the globe) resent the “Miss Piggy” sleight, I focused on the “Miss Housekeeping” comment and thought, ‘Here we go again with the racial crap.’  Once more, Hispanic women are being dropped into the narrow categories of maid, housekeeper, etc. by (imagine this!) an old White male.

Trump has made racism and misogyny hallmarks of his campaign.  But this latest verbal assault against Machado struck me personally and harder than his previous idiotic statements.  As the son of a German-Mexican mother, I’ve heard more than a few stories of bigotry about the American workplace.  But, as someone who labored in the corporate world for more than a quarter century, I know that Hispanic women fit into more than the standard housekeeper / maid job role.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, women overall comprise roughly 57% of the American workforce; both full-time and part-time.  It’s the first time in U.S. labor history that more women than men are working.  Such a figure would have been incomprehensible a generation ago.

Not long after I was born in 1963, my father demanded that my mother stay home and raise me; thus becoming a traditional mother and housewife.  He was invoking the machismo persona of the average American male.  Few women worked after having a child in those days – or at least that’s what the general philosophy held.  In reality a number of women entered the workforce after having children, long before it became socially acceptable.  Many had no real choice.  My mother may have had a choice, but she refused to bow to pre-defined roles.  She had already gone against tradition by telling a Catholic priest shortly before my parents married that she didn’t plan to have a child every year, as the Holy Roman Empire dictated.  It upset the priest so badly that he told her maternal grandmother, a woman who had raised her and her three siblings after their mother died in 1940.  The grandmother, in turn, expressed her frustration to my mother who stood her ground.  Unless the Church was willing to finance her progeny, my mother absolutely would not have a child every time my father got an erection.  It’s a good thing.  My mother had enough trouble with me.  She had lost two pregnancies before I was born and another afterwards.  Considering some of the financial troubles my parents experienced later, it’s a good thing my mother returned to work in 1965, when I was 18 months old.  She retired in 2003 at age 70.

In reviewing contemporary TV shows, I believe there are about as many Hispanic characters now as there were fifty years ago; meaning they could probably all be counted on one hand.  Among the most popular today is “Modern Family,” featuring Colombian-born former model Sofia Vergara.  (Apparently there weren’t enough Hispanic actresses in Hollywood needing an acting job, so the show’s casting director yanked this nitwit from the gutter of foreign refuse to fill an otherwise blatantly stereotypical role.)

In 2003, NBC presented “Kingpin,” a series about (surprise!) a Mexican drug cartel family caught between the brutal worlds of narcotics trafficking and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.  I guess these conflicts were supposed to induce some sort of dramatic intoxication in the viewer.  Entertainment insiders noted the show presented a number of Hispanic performers; folks who normally wouldn’t find much long-term work in Hollywood apart from character clichés.  Those of us outside of that insulated fantasy factory – that is, those of us with a firm grip on reality – saw it for what it was: yet more Hispanics in formulaic characters.  The cacophony of anger was loud enough for NBC to cancel the series after just six episodes.  They claimed it was actually due to poor ratings.  As far as I can tell, industry outlets such as “Entertainment Tonight” didn’t spend much time highlighting the glaring racism in the series.  But I’m certain if a similar show about Blacks or Jews had come out, protests would be louder than the sound of Donald Trump dropping another wife.  Hell, when “Seinfeld” went off the air in 1998, it made national news!

This past June the USA Network premiered a show titled “Queen of the South.”  Such a name might make viewers assume it focuses on the antics of a cynically witty granddame-type in Georgia or South Carolina; an old gal who sips mint julips, dons “Gone with the Wind” regalia every December 20 and longs for the old days Negroes had to sit at the back of the bus.  That, of course, would be more than enough to get a show bounced of the air.  But “Queen of the South” revolves around a woman named Teresa who grew up poor and loveless in a Mexican slum and falls in love with (wait for it) a Mexican drug cartel leader.  When he’s killed, she flees to South Texas and becomes involved with someone from her past in an attempt to avenge her boyfriend’s murder.  That’s bad enough.  Yet it gets worse, as Teresa realizes the narcotics lifestyle is just too good to pass up and subsequently becomes a drug czarina in her own right.  It’s a quirky spin on the life and murderous legacy of Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. “The Cocaine Godmother.”  In fact, Blanco’s story is currently metamorphosing into a Hollywood biopic starring Jennifer Lopez who – like the late Michael Jackson – is gradually turning Whiter as she gets older.

Once again, though, Hispanics and illegal drugs are linked.  Actually Hispanics are still paired up with almost anything illegal: gang members, prostitutes, immigrants sneaking across the border and the like.  If going from maids and groundskeepers to drug cartel leaders is supposed to be an improvement, I’ll stick with the maid / groundskeeper type.  It’s sort of like this year’s elections: one has to choose between the lesser of two evils.

Looking through production credits for some of these shows, I’ve noticed none had Spanish surnames.  It’s obvious, then, from the initial concept down to the actual filming of the program, people of Northern European extraction are in control.  A good number of them are Jewish.  Therefore, I dare any of them to produce a television show displaying Jews (or any-Hispanic) as crooks.  Let’s see if it even gets past its debut episode.

close-up-of-hispanic-african-american_work

I’m pleased to see plenty of Blacks and Asians (many of them women) in non-traditional roles; business professionals and law enforcement characters who actually speak perfect English.  The same doesn’t hold true for Hispanics, or Native Americans for that matter.  We’re still the drug dealers, maids, groundskeepers and / or illiterate wetbacks who comprise the much-despised “Other” group of degenerates; people who are too lazy or stupid to get a decent education and find a legitimate career.  People Donald Trump wants to wall off and deport.

I don’t want to be around drug dealers or prostitutes either.  But that’s simply because I don’t belong to either of those groups.  Nor does anyone in my family and nor do most Hispanics.

We’re educated and career-driven.  We’re concerned about national security and the economy – just like any other citizen of this country.  Race and ethnicity are wedge issues that some people love to exploit.  We’re fully aware of the myriad stereotypes that plague us as a group; whether it’s on television or in political discourse.  We’re fully aware that Donald Trump is appealing to the traditional Republican base: older White men who watch in dismay as the world they thought only they would inherit slowly slips into the chaos of what the U.S. Constitution promised – freedom and equality for all.

Hispanic and other non-White women (or “women of color” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) are double minorities in this society because of two factors: their gender and their ethnicity.  Non-White women with college degrees, for example, often earn as much (or as little) as a White male with only a high school diploma.

Having grown up with a working mother – and seeing other Hispanic women struggling both to get educated and to maintain their jobs – I understand that the American entertainment machine and people like Donald Trump just can’t (or won’t) accept the truth.  Old prejudicial concepts are tough to eradicate.  But reality is reality.  And the reality I know is that beauty queens and housemaids aren’t the only roles where Hispanic women are allowed to exist.

 

Top image “Sonhos do carnaval” (Carnival dreams, 1955), courtesy Emiliano di Cavalcanti.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays

Black, Not Like Her

naacp14n-3-web

“Everybody wants to be Black, until the police show up.”

D.L. Hughley

I wonder if Rachel Dolezal took a deep breath when she marked her race as “Black” or “Negro” for the first time on a form; whether on paper or online. If you’re American, you know the kind. The section at the end of whatever application you’re completing that purports to be for “information purposes” only. People are just now starting worry about the NSA collecting data on them? Seriously?! The IRS and U.S. Census Bureau have been doing it for decades!

I used to select “Hispanic.” Then, if I could, I’d also select “White.” I mean, after all, I can’t deny my Spanish and German heritage, no matter how much I try. And I’ve never tried. Some folks, even here in the U.S., still find it hard to believe “Spaniards” classify as “White.” I guess it’s their close association with Mexicans that goes back some, oh, 500 years and occasionally pisses off some pure-blooded Spaniards. Germans, of course, are definitely “White.” You really can’t get any Whiter than that. If you do, you’re not White, you’re albino.

In recent years, however, I’ve opted to select “Choose Not to Disclose” on that race section, which is a polite way of saying, ‘What’s this have to do with it?’ Or, ‘None of your fucking business!’ When I’d apply for a job, I don’t expect special consideration because I’m Hispanic, shy, only 5’8”, and / or have a nice butt (which I do). I’ve always simply wanted people to look at my resume and base their decision on that. I feel the same way about my writing. Don’t look at me as a “Hispanic writer.” Just look at me as a writer. Damnit!

The ongoing race debate in this multi-cultural nation took on a new and very bizarre twist last month when Dolezal, head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington was outed as a White chick. Or, mostly White. Her parents back in Minnesota produced photos of their estranged daughter with her naturally blonde hair and blue eyes; noting that they’re of Nordic European heritage, with some Indian mixed into the bloodline. Why Dolezal decided to darken her hair and try to masquerade as a Negro remains the central question? (All those “central” questions begin with ‘why’ anyway.) It’s confounded people as much as it’s upset them.

In the early 1960s, my mother bought her father a blue tie to match his eyes for his birthday. During a gathering at the home of my paternal grandparents (her in-laws), she mentioned that to my grandmother who merely replied, “Well, I don’t like blue eyes.” It startled, and even offended my mother who didn’t know what to say. But, many years ago, my father told me that his younger brother was born with blue eyes, and that their mother prayed they’d change color. And they did – to green, like his oldest brother and their father. (My father came out with dark brown eyes and blue-black hair, like his mother.)

My grandmother’s anti-blue-eye sentiments were surprising, when I found out later that her youngest siblings were all blond and blue-eyed…like their father. Looking at antiquitous black and white photos of my father’s maternal grandfather reminds me of the late actor Richard Farnsworth. My great-grandfather was born in northeastern México in 1866 and became a captain in the Mexican Army. He was married twice; his first wife died relatively young, some time in the 1890s. He and his second wife had a slew of children (as people tended to do in those days), of which my grandmother was one. Sadly, her mother died of the “Spanish flu” in 1918. The following year my great-grandfather moved his family to South Texas.

My grandmother’s ‘I-don’t-like-blue-eyes’ comment had always been a sore point for my mother, but a curious statement for me. It reminds me of the “blue-eyed devil” slur many non-Whites bestowed upon people of European ancestry. It’s supposedly of Asian origin, but like many urban legends, who really knows? Toni Morrison focused on this sensitive issue in her debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970. The story follows a Black girl named Pecola who, while growing up in early 1940s Ohio, reacts to the brutality of racism by wishing her eyes would turn blue. Morrison’s frankness punched bigotry in the nose, and the book faced banishment from many libraries and schools. As a writer, I know that’s the worst affront to free speech. But I also know that, in an America confronting the legacies of Black slavery and Indian genocide, few outside of the academic and progressive communities wanted to discuss these matters.

In 2008, researchers with the University of Copenhagen presented a study claiming every blue-eyed person on Earth has a “single, common ancestor.” According to the researchers, up until about 10,000 years ago, everyone on Earth had eyes that were some varying shade of brown. Then, inexplicably, a mutation occurred within the OCA2 (oculocutaneous albinism II) gene, which resulted in a “switch” that “turned off” the ability to produce brown eyes in some individuals. Formerly called the “P” gene, OCA2 is involved in the creation of pigmentation in three areas: skin, hair and eyes. Apparently, blue-eyed folks have the least amount of pigmentation without qualifying as albinos, but still – according to some – means they represent the ideal human being.

I’m not certain where green, hazel, amber or even lavender eyes fall into this genetic stew. Oddly, though, green eyes are rarer than blue ones.

Findings by the Human Genome Project (HGP), however, have pretty much destroyed that theory. Initiated in the 1980s, HPG was a collaborative effort by a gallery of scientists representing a variety of disciplines with the goal of understanding all of the genes that comprise human mammals. Its roots actually go back further and can be traced to a handful of forward-thinking individuals.

One of them was Alfred Henry Sturtevant who began studying genetics in the color heredity of horses. In 1908, Sturtevant presented a paper on the subject to Thomas Hunt Morgan, a professor of the then-burgeoning field of genetics at Columbia University. At the time, Morgan had focused his research on Drosophila (fruit flies), which turned out to be an ideal candidate for genetic study. They mature in ten days; are less than one-eight inch in length; can live by the hundreds in small vials; require nothing more substantial than yeast for food; and have only four pairs of chromosomes. In 1911, Sturtevant landed in Morgan’s lab and, within two years, determined the growth rate of six of the fruit fly’s traits. Sturtevant’s discovery is considered the starting point for modern genetics; it led the way for more detailed studies of human and animal genetics. It seems odd now that scientists made the leap from fruit flies to humans in less than a century. But scientific research doesn’t always take a logical path – at least not from a casual observation.

One of the most intriguing results from such intensive research and analyses is the determination of what people who lived hundreds – if not thousands – of years ago may have looked like. And I don’t mean ethereal ideas developed from artistic studies of Roman frescoes or lost Michelangelo paintings. DNA analyses of human skeletons have produced the seemingly impossible: actual data of people’s coloration, weight and diseases, among other factors. Two years ago Dutch and Polish geneticists announced the development of the HIrisPlex System, which can identify eye color (and sometimes hair color) by pulling genetic material from human teeth.

Still, the concept that fair-eyed also means fair-skinned weakened with a unique revelation last year. In 2006, archaeologists discovered two male skeletons in a cave in northeastern Spain. The area, known as La Braña-Arintero, sits about 5,000 feet above sea level; providing a cold enough environment to allow for preservation. After determining both sets of remains were about 7,000 years old, scientists set out to learn what the men may have looked like. Each apparently had dark skin and dark hair, common traits at the time. But one, dubbed La Braña 1, also had blue eyes. For years scientists have also stated that, for humans to turn blond, they had to migrate far into what is now Northern Europe. This is credible, when you consider that some 90% of Nordic Europeans are fair-colored. But other people who settled into neighboring Arctic regions, such as Siberia and Greenland, are also at least light-skinned.

Genetic research has discovered something else: the natural occurrence of blond hair among some dark-skinned Polynesians (or Melanesians) is a distinct genetic trait. For decades, scientists believed that the fair-colored locks of some islanders were the result of unions between amorous and lonely European sailors and local women. That sort of tale has played out across the globe for generations. But, in 2012, geneticists at Harvard and Stanford Universities proved the truth isn’t so clear-cut. They studied 43 fair-haired and 42 dark-haired Solomon Islanders and found a gene for the blond coloring, TYRP1, on chromosome 9. More importantly that gene doesn’t exist in the European genome. That means the blond-haired gene manifested by itself in the Solomon Island population. No White folks needed.

DNA analyses proved the same with the aboriginal peoples of Australia. Despite their dark skin, many Australian Aborigines have fair hair and fair eyes. This compelled scientists to place them into the Caucasian racial group decades ago. But, as with the Melanesians, genetic researchers confirmed what the Australians already knew: they’re not inherently White. They’re not a separate racial group, as they’ve often claimed, but rather the descendants of people who left Africa and arrived in Australia some 40,000 years ago.

Rachel Dolezal isn’t the first person to lie about her race or ethnicity. George Herriman was best known for his cartoon, “Krazy Kat,” which ran in U.S. newspapers from 1913 to 1944. Quiet and introspective, Herriman didn’t generate much discussion about his race. Some of his closest friends thought he was of Greek extraction because of his olive-tinted skin. In fact, Herriman was of Black and White heritage; born in New Orleans in 1880. When he was a child, his family moved to Los Angeles, primarily to escape the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South. Herriman wasn’t alone. Many people of similar mixed heritage took advantage of their fair, or somewhat fair, skin to proclaim themselves as purely White. It’s unknown just how many Americans spent their lives passing as White, but were actually mulattoes. It’s sad in retrospect, but that’s the reality many people faced. It’s even more frustrating, when you realize that Herriman, in particular, often featured African-Americans in stereotypical fashion.

While some people thought George Herriman was Greek, Gregory Markopoulos really was Greek. For years, though, Markopoulos passed himself off as a Native American named Jamake Highwater. Markopoulos claimed he was born on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana in 1942 to a mother who was French Canadian and Blackfoot Indian and a father who was Cherokee. In other versions of his life, he told people his mother was full-blooded Cherokee; he was born in South Dakota; and he was born in France. He even exaggerated his educational background. Still, he developed a distinguished career as a writer and expert on Indigenous American culture; publishing over 30 books and even took part in the recording of an avant-garde / jazz album in 1968. But Markopoulos’ true identity was exposed in 1984, when Native American activist Hank Adams published a stinging editorial about him in the “Washington Post.” Afterwards Markopoulos stopped claiming he was Native American, but retained his self-anointed expertise on Native American culture up until his death in 2001.

In the 1950s, a man calling himself Korla Pandit became a musical sensation with his own show, “Musical Adventures with Korla Pandit,” where he’d played a Hammond organ or a piano. Claiming he was born in New Delhi to a French mother and an Indian father, Pandit was considered the godfather of the exotic musical genre at the time. Wearing a bejeweled turban and not saying a word during any of his shows helped to seal his mystic nature. But, in 2000, two years after his death, “Los Angeles Magazine” revealed that he was actually born John Roland Redd in St. Louis, Missouri, and was African-American.

Ethnic switches have reached comical levels. In 1984, the world of wrestling – no stranger to outrageous personalities – saw the arrival of Nikita Koloff, “The Russian Nightmare.” Alleging he was a Moscow transplant, Koloff didn’t speak English for some 13 months after his first televised appearance. His “uncle,” Ivan Koloff, translated for him. Nikita’s real name is Nelson Scott Simpson, and he was born in Minnesota in 1959. “Uncle Ivan” was a Canadian-born teammate named Oreal Perras. After his charade and wrestling career ended, Simpson became a “born-again Christian” and established his own ministry.

Ethnic alterations have resulted in legal disputes. In 1998, a man calling himself JoJo Chokal-Ingam was accepted into Saint Louis University Medical School. He identified as African-American. But JoJo’s first name was actually Vijay, and he was Indian-American (the “Slurpee” kind of Indian, not the casino kind) who grew up in Boston. Vijay wanted desperately to get into medical school, but felt his 3.1 GPA was a hindrance. The fact that about half of the 22 institutions to which he submitted applications, including Saint Louis, interviewed him seemed to confirm his anxiety. So, he shaved his head, cut his long eyelashes and represented himself as Black. That apparently got him the necessary academic attention and final acceptance into Saint Louis. It also garnered the unwanted suspicions of store owners and harassment by police; results, he admits, he didn’t expect. But it also got him into trouble with the university and raised the ire of several African-Americans who knew him.

Some people have changed racial identities for purely nefarious reasons. In 1988, police in Sacramento, California were horrified to discover dead bodies buried in the back yard of a group home run by a woman calling herself Dorothea Puente. Puente had slowly worked her way into the heart of Sacramento’s Hispanic community by helping the downtrodden; people who were homeless or had no family to look out for them as they aged. A long series of curious events in the 1980s revealed Puente was a cunning murderer who killed at least three (and perhaps as many as nine) of her tenants. Others disappeared. But it also revealed Puente’s true identity: Dorothea Helen Gray, a California native from a broken home who was married three times; had three children; and once ran a brothel. It was a blow to the local Hispanic community. No one really seemed to think much about Gray’s fair-colored physical attributes. That, like her ethnicity, was not important in the long run.

What does this all have to do with Rachel Dolezal? Well…a lot. If Dolezal wanted to bring any kind of awareness to racial injustices, she didn’t have to go so far as to darken and frizz her hair (which is somewhat patronizing), or visit tanning booths (which is unhealthy). John Howard Griffin underwent a similar experiment (using chemicals and ultraviolet light to darken his skin) to learn what it felt like to be a Negro traveling through segregated Mississippi in 1959. He documented his experiences – and their frightening repercussions – in his groundbreaking 1961 book, “Black Like Me.” Dolezal could have focused on her Native American heritage, even if it’s a small part of her ancestry. After all, the indigenous peoples of the Americas have endured the longest-lasting and most extensive genocide in human history. She also might want to read Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies,” and focus on Chapter 19: “How Africa Became Black.”

Coloring aside, I refer back to the Human Genome Project and something else its research discovered. We’re all part of the same race: the one called Human. I know that sounds like a touchy, feely, Kumbaya, hug a tree and sing a song type of things. But it’s the truth. Every individual on Earth shares 99.9% of human genes. There are roughly 3 billion pairs of DNA elements. That makes us all pretty tight.

I also want to turn your attention to artist and fellow blogger Bettye Harwell (Le Artiste Boots) and an essay she published after the Dolezal case blew up. Anyone who thinks they understand race relations in America could learn about Bettye’s own personal experiences. If you’re in a lighter mood, check out actress Maya Rudolph’s impersonation of Dolezal. Rudolph – who’s biracial – can also tell the wanna-be-a-Black-gal a few cold hard facts about ethnicity.

My father worked for a printing company for most of his life. One of his long-time constituents, an African-American man, once told him, “You know, it’s hell to be Black.” My father could relate. As a Mexican-American, he didn’t have it that much easier. He and the father of two of my closest friends, a brother and sister, grew up together in East Dallas. A few years ago the sister reiterated how surprised she was that our fathers knew one another and subsequently, that I’d come to know her and her brother.

“All those old Mexicans knew each other,” I informed her. “They all hung around each other. They had to! It was the only way they could survive back then.”

My mother mentioned once that the insurance company where she used to work didn’t get its first Black employee until 1971. This was the same company that, shortly thereafter, issued a survey to its female associates inquiring if any of them felt it was okay for women to wear slacks to work. My mother recounted another odd story from her youth. Her father, the blond, blue-eyed German-American, had trouble with some of his male colleagues at a car plant where he used to work in Dallas. They didn’t like the fact my grandfather was from Michigan, a Yankee. His supervisor – another White guy – was especially derogatory. My grandfather finally just looked at him and said, “You know, you have cow shit on your boots.” And then walked away.

During my own youth – grade school and high school – it was other White kids who slung racial slurs at me from time to time. Within the past two decades, however, things have changed. Other Hispanics (as well as some Blacks) are now the ones who make racist comments to me. But, whenever dark-skinned Hispanics mock my Teutonic heritage, I remind them that not all Mexicans – even the pure-blooded Indians – are “dark-skinned mojados.” I can’t recount how many times that almost resulted in a fist fight. But I feel it’s a fight worth the trouble.

People like Rachel Dolezal need to stop fighting so hard to feel empathy. Just treat people respect and move forward.  Yes, we’re different in some ways. But yet, we’re all still the same.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays

Our People

In the spring of 1983, while I was a first-year student at a community college in suburban Dallas, I took a historical geology course as a science requisite.  About midway through the semester, the instructor brought in a guest speaker; a man who described himself as a “water rights activist.”  It was a term I’d never heard before; in fact, no one else in the class I knew had heard of it.  Water rights, of course, are part of the overall environmental movement, and people are giving it much more scrutiny now as climate change becomes critical.  The man (I can’t recall his name) explained how large populations in any given location can stress out the area’s natural resources.  And, water is the most basic of all natural resources.  But, amidst his light-hearted dialogue, he suddenly mentioned illegal Mexican immigrants.  He was concerned that more people taking up residence in Texas and the rest of the southwestern U.S. were unnecessarily straining the region’s valuable resources – mainly water.  It was – and still is – a compelling argument.   And, I would have agreed with him, if he hadn’t blatantly classified all Hispanics under one group: illegal immigrants, Mexicans, “Chicanos.”

“Or, whatever those people call themselves,” he said, inciting a few chuckles from the crowd.

‘Those people?’ I repeated to myself.  He might as well have stared at the handful of Hispanics in the room and said ‘you people.’  I’ve had that thrown at me a few times.

During his speech, he pointed to a large map of the state of Texas he’d brought with him; one that displayed population centers in comparison to water resources.  “Now imagine this minus a few Chicanos,” he said, before proceeding to explain further what it was all about.

I forgot what he said because I’d lost interest in him.  He was no longer jovial and quaint; he was arrogant and bigoted.  Every fact he uttered after he presented his map was lost.  I had grown angry.  I already knew by then that my father’s paternal ancestors had been in Texas since the 1580’s.  My father’s later genealogical research proved just how much influence our family had on Texas some 200 years before it joined the United States.  But, in 1983, I was a rather naïve 19-year-old who was just becoming aware of his surroundings.  I’d already faced some prejudice in high school.  But, here I was in college; higher academia; in a science class.  And, a 50-something Anglo man essentially referred to me as a “Chicano” and an “illegal immigrant.”

He then did something totally bizarre; he extracted a guitar and belted out a homemade tune about some long-standing Texas politician.  Again, I forgot the name because I was too annoyed with the “water rights activist” by now.  When he finished squawking, the classroom erupted into delighted applause.  I remained mute, my hands on my lap.

After the next class, I approached the instructor and asked if she could make time for a meeting in her office.  I wanted to talk to her about that guest speaker.  I wanted to be a diplomatic.  She said yes, and I met her later in the day.  I explained how offended I was by his verbiage, adding that me and most other Hispanics were born and raised in the U.S.  She was surprised by my reaction.  She literally had no idea and fumbled an apology.

That was in 1983, and now, nearly two decades later, with the clown show known as the 2012 presidential campaign season in full swing, I’m almost contemptuous of politicians’ attempts to placate the Hispanic vote.  Moreover, I’m still annoyed to find that the issue of immigration – specifically illegal immigration – seems to be the only concern of the Hispanic American community.  I know many Hispanics give that impression with their own focus on immigration.  But, like most people in the U.S., my biggest grievance is the economy, along with unemployment.

Hispanics have a longer history in this country than any other ethnic group, save Indigenous Americans, with whom we share a common heritage.  Spaniards established the first permanent European colony in what is now North America.  But, in modern times, we still had to work hard to attain our fair share of the American dream, combating blatant racism and the old guard status quo that dictated where we could live and work.  Now, we’re mixed up in this awful immigration fight with no easy solutions; a fiasco that has people on all sides paranoid and angry.

I don’t support illegal immigration – from Latin America or anywhere in the world.  The laws are very clear: you cannot enter the United States without proper documentation.  Hispanics have fought long and hard for equal rights in employment, housing, education and all other aspects of American life.  Sneaking across the border under the cover of darkness is not one of them.  It never was and it never will be.  That viewpoint has made me a traitor in the eyes of many other Hispanics; both American-born and immigrant.  But, I structure my opinions around other people’s sentiments.  I consider myself an American first; a proud mix of Spanish, Mexican Indian and German extraction.  Some of my own ancestors fought for Texas against Mexico – including one with my exact name!  The much-heralded Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, along with most of the others, were outsiders; that is, non-Texans.

Many Americans are upset with the mass influx of illegal immigrants who have disregarded our laws.  If only the latter group would show some respect for our country and emigrate legally, there wouldn’t be much of a problem.  But, their actions have generated an unprecedented level of fear among some folks – especially the narrow-minded – and allowed all Latinos to be branded with the unsavory title of “illegal alien.”

While my paternal ancestry in Texas extends back to the late 16th century, I am also the son of an immigrant.  My mother was born just outside México City.  But, she was already a U.S. citizen at birth, since her father was born in Michigan.  After my maternal grandmother died in 1940, my grandfather moved his four kids to Dallas where he’d found a job in the midst of World War II.  His mother-in-law, who already spoke fluent English, came with them.  My grandfather got his children social security numbers immediately and insisted that they speak only English in that household.  Some Hispanics laugh at me when I tell them my mother was born in México.  They get even uglier when I tell them my grandfather was German-American.  You don’t make friends with people by mocking their families.  It’s ironic though; in high school, it was the Anglo and Irish kids who hurled racist statements at me.  Now, it’s other Hispanics.

Several years ago, during the Independence Day weekend, a friend and I went nightclubbing.  We started at a Tejano bar just north of downtown Dallas.  I donned my American flag vest; something I usually wear during the Memorial and Independence Day periods.  But, on that one night, my friend suggested I remove it before we enter that Tejano bar; noting that, if anything, I should be wearing a Mexican flag vest, lest I offend the crowd.

“Excuse me?!” I replied.  “This is the United States; not México!  If someone doesn’t like that I’m wearing this American flag vest, they’re more than welcome to tell it to my face – in Spanish or English.  And then, stand back and watch while I rip their head off and dump shit down their throat.”

He didn’t pursue the matter, and I didn’t remove the vest.  No one complained about it – at least not to me.

Some people accuse me of being confused or conflicted.  I’m neither.  One girl dubbed me a “coconut” – brown on the outside and white on the inside.  “Well,” I told her, “I am White – White as in Spaniard and German.”  It seemed I had to remind her – as I do many people – that Spaniards are “White,” too; as in European, as in Caucasian.  Read my essay, “Name Calling,” and you’ll get a sense how ridiculous that racial stuff can get.

The U.S. is at a crossroads; an uncomfortable fork of its own making.  Some large companies and farms began employing illegal immigrants – mostly Mexicans – so they could avoid paying decent wages and health care costs and skirt OSHA safety laws.  As many states and individual cities target illegal immigrants, some of those farms and meat-packing plants find themselves idle; there’s no one to do that kind of work.  That kind of work is hard and dirty.  The often-spoiled American middle and upper classes can’t imagine themselves in such positions.  If it doesn’t involve Microsoft and a laptop, it seems they want nothing to do with it.  When former Mexican president Vicente Fox stated several years ago that Mexican immigrants do the work in the U.S. that our nation’s Black population won’t, he got branded a racist and a bigot by the usual voices on the far left: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc.  But, I can relay from first-hand experience that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, large numbers of Hispanic immigrants poured into New Orleans to help clean up and rebuild the city.  While the mostly Black population was airlifted to other cities where they took up residence in hotels and sports stadiums, Mexicans, Guatemalans and the like were making their way into the decimated “Crescent City” to make it habitable again.  I don’t believe the far left complained about that part of the racial divide.

President Obama and his supporters can laud the “Dream Act” all they want.  But, it’s not my issue.  Even though I’ve been unemployed for some time, I’m not likely to run to the nearest chicken slaughter house or peach orchard to look for work.  Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out how he and his trophy wife can appeal to Hispanic voters without offending the Republican base that has come to loathe Latinos.  Immigration isn’t a Hispanic issue; it’s an American issue.  I want political operatives to stop placing Latinos beneath that single umbrella – immigrants, illegal immigrants, Chicanos.  ‘You people.’  Our people.  We’re American people.  We don’t all look alike and we certainly don’t all think alike.

1 Comment

Filed under Essays

Name Calling

Whenever I’ve completed an online job application in recent years, I’ve tended to leave the “race / ethnicity” category blank, or select “Choose not to disclose.”  This modern American society isn’t supposed to care about such matters anymore, as long as the applicant has the right qualifications and – most importantly – can end up doing the job.  So, I’m just sort of helping to see that utopian vision come to fruition.  As I state on my “About” page, I’m of Spanish, Mexican Indian and German descent – and tell people exactly that.  It often throws more than a few folks for a loop, especially when they want so badly to put me in a little ethnic box.  I love pissing people off like that!  Then, they get upset and start calling me names, but I still don’t care about their feelings.  I am what I am.

Increasingly, it seems, many of my fellow Americans are following suit.  The 2010 census produced some curious results in the race category.  More than 21.7 million people described themselves outside of the standard labels; using such terms as “Arab,” “Haitian,” “Mexican” and – my personal favorite – “multiracial.”

The government has 4 racial categories:

  • White,
  • Black,
  • Asian / Pacific Islander,
  • American Indian / Alaska Native.

Here’s where it gets confusing – and sometimes ugly.  If you’re ‘White,’ that means Caucasian, which generally means you trace your ancestry to Europe.  If you’re ‘Black,’ that means Negro, which generally means you trace your ancestry to Africa.  If you’re ‘Asian / Pacific Islander,’ that means you’re Asian Mongoloid, which means you trace your ancestry to Asia, the Orient and / or one or more of the thousands of Pacific islands.  If you’re ‘American Indian / Alaska Native,’ that means you’re American mongoloid and your people didn’t come over here on the Mayflower; they met the damn boat.

In recent years, some “Blacks” have referred to themselves as “African-American,” meaning they trace their ancestry to the African continent – which, according to the Human Genome Project, we all do anyway – but they’re also Americans.  Since I’m mostly “White” (Spanish and German), I guess I could classify myself as European-American – hopefully without sounding like a David Duke protégé.  But, if I do that, then I’d be neglecting the Mexican Indian part of me.  Since Mexican Indians are indigenous to what is now México and south Texas, that would also make them “American Indian,” so I guess I’m still very much an American – and not just by birth.  So, the “European-American” label would, in a sense, be all-encompassing, but still not clear enough.

Lately, though, I’ve seen these 2 categories: “White (non-Hispanic)” and “Hispanic (non-White).”  Damn!  If I select the “White (non-Hispanic)” group, that would indicate I have no Spanish or Indian blood, which simply isn’t true.  My Spanish and Indian ancestors would rise from their graves and haunt me until I repent and correct the form.  But, if I choose “Hispanic (non-White),” then that implies I’m strictly of Spanish and Mexican Indian extraction – which also isn’t true.  My Teutonic relatives up in Michigan (and the Bavarian heartland) would disown me, if they knew me that well.  I normally don’t care how others feel about me, but this is too important.

I don’t know when the U.S. government decided people from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) aren’t considered “White,” or why, but it upsets the natural balance of Caucasianism.  From what I understand, Portuguese folks don’t like to be called “Hispanic” because that puts them in the same category as Mexicans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans; and Spaniards don’t like to be grouped with people from Latin America because the latter often have too much Indian and Negro in them.  But apparently, that Indian and Negro blood is what generated the “Hispanic (non-White)” box in the first place!  And, that’s another thing – what if you have Negro blood in you, like a lot of people from the Caribbean islands and many parts of Brazil?  In that case, you’ll check every damn box on that application and really throw the computers out of whack!

Back in 2000, the subject of race came up at my work, as everyone discussed the ongoing census.  One woman said to me, “But, you’re Mexican!”  My manager (a Negro) laughed at the way she just blurted that out, as if she was trying to put me in my place; that properly-designated box.  But, I wasn’t smiling.  “Do you even know what that means?” I asked her.  She looked at me – this little woman who was part “White” and part “Cherokee” – and couldn’t answer.  The 2000 census allowed Americans to classify themselves as “multiracial” for the first time.  I’d like to hope the 2020 census will be the last time the race category is listed at all, but I guess I’m still trying to achieve that elusive utopia.  I stared hard at that one little mixed-race woman and said, “I’m not Mexican.  I’m American.”

That pretty much ended that particular conversation – and more than a decade into the 21st century, others are still having it.

1 Comment

Filed under Essays