Excerpted from an essay, originally published in Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue, Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones, editors (Boston, Skinner House, 2003). Used with permission.
Race. Class. Culture. [Unitarian Universalist minister] Marta Valentin called these the "Un(W)holey Trinity." Even one of these has the ability to separate one from another, to build walls—mostly metaphorical, but sometimes real. For Latinos and Latinas the issues are complex. Where discussions of oppression center on race alone, and where race tends to be cast in terms of a white and black dichotomy, the complexities of the Latino experience are lost. Our experiences are racial, cultural, and linguistic. We cannot be defined racially, since all races are a part of our people. Besides, if we wish to think in terms of current scientific thought, we humans are all one despite the fact that we see difference. In our experience, economic domination is directly linked to racial and ethnic domination. Our racial/ethnic differences have been used to displace us from land, to use as cheap labor, to exploit our countries for their prime resources, to insist that we give up culture and values.
With regard to race, class, and culture, the issue of names arises yet again. Among Latinos and Latinas, as perhaps among other oppressed groups, names may carry political, cultural, social, and racial meanings. For example, a name may be a political/geographical description that indicates national heritage, such as Puerto Rican or Cuban; it may make a political statement, as with the name Chicano; or it may be a racial description, such as mulatto or mestizo. In some countries, names may even indicate class.
Our names and descriptions of ourselves are colored by individual experiences of history and politics and geography. Some of us, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, are citizens of this country as a result of U.S. conquest and colonization. Many of us have lived in what is now the United States since the sixteenth century. Those of us who have roots here among the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere may count time even further back. Others have entered the United States in more recent waves of immigration.
Often these names are controversial, and in the end, as my colleague Peter Morales wrote, "Any category is an idol, no matter how powerful or useful that category may be. For behind any construct is a rich, multifaceted, complex, chaotic, messy reality... Using categories inevitably does a subtle kind of violence. I am a Latino. But while that term captures a critical part of who I am, it does not begin to capture the totality of who I am."
His comments bring to mind the U.S. census form, one of the more recent examples of an attempt to name and categorize according to race that left me frustrated and uneasy. Mixed, as I know myself to be, I struggled to find a category that fit. There were certainly more categories on the form than I remembered from earlier censuses! Yet, I struggled to find a category that described me. Finally, in a fit of pique, I checked several boxes and sent the form in—fully expecting someone to come after me. At the very least, I expected to get a letter stating that I hadn't filled the form out properly, and therefore didn't belong or perhaps did not exist. The form was yet another way that my reality—and probably that of many others—is not recognized.
Bilingual education generates another complex series of issues and questions. There is no agreement, even among Latinos and Latinas, about bilingual education as an educational tool. Keep in mind that there are Latinos and Latinas that speak only English; others who speak only Spanish, others who speak Portuguese or one of the various indigenous languages around the world, and still others who are not only bilingual but multilingual. Many Latinos and Latinas growing up in the United States in the days before bilingual education may remember when we were forbidden to speak Spanish at school or were punished for doing so. Even with bilingual education, language is still an issue.
Bilingual education also raises questions that go beyond language, questions such as what it takes to succeed in this country and how success is measured. The answer to these questions is complicated, first by the fact that many people buy into the great myth that all one has to do to succeed is work hard, and second by the fact that success in this country is measured solely by individual success. It also raises the questions whether or to what extent mastery of language alone is sufficient to escape the cycle of poverty. Even more critically, it raises the questions of just how crucial language is to identity and what it takes to nurture family, community, and cultural ties. And finally, it raises the question of what it means to be a true citizen of this country. Implicit in many of the arguments around language—and how this applies as well to other minorities who speak other languages—is the assumption that true citizens speak English. What is left out of such arguments is what it takes for those living in poverty—or below the poverty level—to find the time and energy to learn English. It is also necessary to point out that not all immigrants are poor, and the need to be able to use English will affect immigrants differently.
The question of what makes a true citizen revolves around not only language but other forms of cultural expression, and there are class issues involved as well. Implicit in the assumption about the United States as a "melting pot" is the belief that true citizens become like everyone else...
What is astonishing about the belief in the "melting pot" is the assumption that there exists a single correct way of being. In general, this belief in assimilation assumes absorption into the mainstream at the expense of ethnic and cultural identity, but this does not reflect reality. Alternative theories, such as multiculturalism and pluralism, do not sufficiently address the problem either. Multiculturalism, as some individuals may use this term, often assumes a basic and unchanging culture in which minorities merely add color rather than create an altogether new entity. Describing the drawbacks of pluralism, William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor wrote,
While pluralism allows for private and even some public celebration of difference, it tends to be the celebration of difference in publicly sanctioned settings of special holidays, parades, and social events, where we are permitted to be Jewish, or Italian, or Polish, or to claim any other ethnic heritage. Pluralism implies that in our private lives we can possess and exhibit different cultural identities, but that in the public sphere, except in those sanctioned displays of ethnicity, we must put aside those identities and interact instead in a culturally neutral space as "Americans." By taking for granted that public space can be and is culturally neutral, pluralism endorses the dominant culture as normative. More serious is pluralism's silence on inequality and power relations in the country. While expression of difference is permitted, challenges to power relations are suppressed. (Latino Cultural Citizenship, Boston: Beacon Press, 1997)
... The process of telling one's story leads to greater understanding—not just for the listener but for the narrator as well. If the listener has developed the gifts of empathy, then it is in hearing the story that he or she may begin to understand. And sometimes it is with the telling of the story that the narrator hears, learns, and understands more deeply the significance and meaning of the story. Transformation requires understanding that comes from the very center of our being—that place that sees and knows no difference between people across social boundaries...