Chile Culture Essay — 29 September 2011

The Tea Party Republicans plan to make an issue of immigration in the upcoming presidential election as they have done in the past.  They decry the surge of what the Americans call “Hispanic” immigrants.  I would like to take a moment to evaluate what means that word “Hispanic” and why when viewed from my point of view (Chile) it is a non-sequitur.

Every 10 years the US government takes a census.  This is when it counts its citizens, residents, and those illegal immigrants who can be enticed into filling out the census form.  The census matters for reasons of political power.  If many people move from, say, California to say, Texas, then Texas will gain seats in the legislature and California will lose them.  And for political groups whose mantra is to represent difficult cultural and racial groups it matters much whether one declares themselves “white”, “black”, “hispanic”, “asian”, or whatever because their power grows as does the number of their constituents. 1

The USA has for many years declared itself a “melting pot” of cultures and a “nation of immigrants”.  These ideas and words are drilled into every school kid and repeated by every politician.  On the State of Liberty is written our moto:  “give me your tired, your poor, yearning to be free”.   But the reality in the USA is that the country is very much racially divided.  On college campuses there are dorms for Asian students, dorms for Black students, and dorms for gay students (these are called “gender neutral”).  At my kids high school there is Jewish month, Muslim month, Black History Month, Asian month, in short a month to pay homage to those who might otherwise be offended were one no to do so except of course there is no White month.  And as anyone who watches American movies knows American cities are divided into white and black neighbourhoods since the second world war.  Perhaps the most famous essay on this so-called “balkanization of the cuture”–that which directly challenged the notion that American was no longer a melting pot–was spelled out by the historian Arthur M. Schlesigner, Jr. in his book “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society”.

Because Americans have grouped themselves this way there is the obvious tendency to make comparisons of one group with another.  Who is smarter?  Who is richer?  Who commits the most crime?  Just this week the Washington Post published the news that for the first time in history Hispanic youth outnumber white and black youth when it comes to the number of children living in poverty.

If you are a person living in Central or South America you need to recognize this if you contemplate moving to the USA.  They are going to hear your accent and if specially if you are moreno (dark-skinned) slap on you this label “Hispanic” and “minority” and ask you from what part of Mexico do you hail.  It does not matter if you are from Chile–the average American does not know that these are different cultures.  (I am free to criticize my own culture.  I have had people ask me more than once in what part of Africa is Chile.)

Well-educated middle and upper middle class people coming from Colombia, Argentina, or Chile will have a hard time going from a society which is divided by class–like Chile–and moving to one which is divided by race–i.e., the USA.  Living in Las Condes or Providencia they considered themselves at the peak of society but if they more to New York they are going to be labelled a different way.  Even if they are white they will be urged to attend meetings and join clubs for so-called “minority” students.  All of this is reflective of America’s racial politics.  As an immigrant or visitor to the country one must recognize that the average American does not know that Mexicans descended from the Mayans and Aztecs, that the people of Peru are for the most part Incas, and that there are many people of German and Spanish descent in Argentina and Chile.  They are simply all “Hispanic”.

So let me explain for my friends from the Tea Party that not all immigrants coming from South America are the same.  The gringos are rightly upset that their streets are overrun with poor and illiterate Mexicans, Guatemaleans, and Salvadoreans without being able to tell them apart.  Certainly there are rich and educated people in Mexico, Guatemala, and Salvador but these people do sneak into the country to stand on the side the street looking for jobs as day labourers or line up to pick grapes and tomatoes.  

War is currently raging in Mexico and spreading to Guatemala and Honduras because of the drug trade.  Salvador is overrun with criminal gangs.  It is the lawlessness of these regions and the poverty of their expatriates which have painted all Hispanics in the USA with the same awful moniker: “illegal immigrant” maybe even if they have immigrated legally.

Instead of teaching civics kids in the USA that America is a “nation of immigrants” and a “melting pot” they should explain that not all Latino people are the same.  Chile has a booming economy as does Peru, Brazil, and Argentina.  Colombia is on sound footing and the drug wars there are for the most part over.  We have no mafia here in Chile and there are no warring drug cartels.  Chilean people come in all colors. Some are dark with black hair.  Some are light with dark hair.  Quite a few are white with blond hair and even a few have blue eyes especially in Argentina.  There are many black people living in Panama and in the coastal areas of Colombia.  Women from Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador are known to have chestnut colored hair and skin the same color. Living here one can readily tell if someone is from Peru or Bolivia because these are different peoples.  So this label “Hispanic” really means nothing when you look at it from the vantage point of the Central or South America.

1 The actual census form is a bit more comprehensive and understanding than the population as a whole.  It asks people who are “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” to indicate both where they are from and what is their race.  The form reads as follows:

NOTE: Please answer BOTH Questions 7 and 8.
Is Person 1 Spanish/Hispanic/Latino? Mark  the “No”
box if not Spanish /Hispanic /Latino.
No, not Spanish /Hispanic /Latino
Yes, Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano
Yes, Puerto Rican
Yes, Cuban
Yes, other Spanish /Hispanic /Latino — Print group.

8. What is Person 1’s race.   Mark  one or more races to

indicate what this person considers himself/herself to be.

Black, African Am., or Negro
American Indian or Alaska Native — Print name of enrolled or principal tribe.
Asian Indian
Other Asian — Print race
Native Hawaiian
Guamanian or Chamorro
Other Pacific Islander — Print race.


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