Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: From Latinidad to Latinidades

João Gabriel Rabello Sodré

Latin America is a large and complex region. It comprises various states and peoples, but also a myriad of biomes, geological features, microclimates, among other earthly variations. One may be baffled that a nonstop flight from Los Angeles to São Paulo, Brazil, takes over twelve hours, an hour more than a plane trip to Madrid. The Amazon rainforest covers various countries with its massive water bodies and unbeatable diversity. But in deep South America, pine-like trees known as araucarias reach heights and thrive in the winter much like their Northern counterparts. Bariloche and Valle Nevado are skiing destinations in July. Indigenous yerba mate caffeinated tea is vastly consumed in Southern Latin America, drank cold on Rio de Janeiro’s beaches but as an infused tea in the Pampas region (Paraguay, Southern Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay). It is essentially unheard of elsewhere, where other beverages and rituals associated with them have also survived colonialism and adapted themselves into post-Columbian societies.  Despite all of its unique features, portrayals of Latin America in pop culture, media, and social media commonly fall into stereotypes.   

Hispanic Heritage month, also known as the Latine and Hispanic Heritage Month at Georgetown University, may be an opportunity to reflect on the concept, limitations, scope, and the potentialities of “Latin America.”  Where does the term “Latin America” come from? Does it include the Caribbean? Is “Hispanic” a synonym of “Latino/a/e/x” in the United States? All these questions are relevant. Whereas it has been suggested that the expression “Latin America” derives from French imaginaries of a transnational Romance-language speaking community, historians have traced the term back to elite circles in Latin America itself, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Back then, the expression carried anti-European imperialist contours, favoring a republic-based nationalism that saw neighboring monarchist Brazil as unfitting to the concept. But through the next decades, the term gained new contours. 

In the twentieth century, Latin American union became an idealized strategy to contain US interventionism in the region, with literature attempting to underscore shared traits among nations and peoples of the region. Eduardo Galeano’s popular 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent exemplifies these efforts. The piece was published in the context of surging Cold War-era US-backed dictatorships in the region that further corroborated Galeano’s notion of the region as a site of exploitation and appropriation by major global powers. Around the same time, scholars formed bodies of the Dependency School, which also attempted to underscore this exploitative relationship between the Global North and Latin America. They rejected notions of “developed” versus “undeveloped,” highlighting how the developed world in fact relies on the status and resources of the periphery. German-born Andre Gunder Frank and Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso, among many others, exemplify the Dependency School’s ideas and range. Frank proposed “underdevelopment” not as a status of a given society or state, but rather as the consequence of Global North exploitation. In other words, countries would have been “underdeveloped” by these elite global actors. As such, undevelopment would not be a stage of development – as if all states marched towards development in a sort of Sid Meyer’s Civilization. Cardoso, in his words, stated “instead of accepting the existence of a determined course in history, there is a return to conceiving it as an open-ended process” and that “underdevelopment then comes to be seen not merely as a process which is a concomitant of the expansion of mercantile capitalism and recurs under industrial capitalism, but as one which is actually generated by them.” These statements counter the notion of progress towards a situation of development, illuminating instead how the wealthier enclaves of the world rely on their poorer counterparts, with degrees of heterogeneity in both.

With booming social movements contesting regimes in the region, indigenous and Black actors underscored other layers of oppression, questioning class-centered analyses that disregarded non-white groups, even within self-proclaimed progressive circles. In a conference in 1987, scholar and activist Lélia Gonzalez discussed the appropriation of Black supporters by Brazilian politicians, social activists, and academics, who, even in the Left, were dismissive of racial issues by focusing only on class. In view of that, Gonzalez claimed Black Brazilians had to fight for themselves, especially in the 1970s, inspired by their own history since the colonial-era Palmares maroon community, by the revolutions in Portuguese-speaking Africa, and by the civil rights movement in the United States. Racial discussions have gained major attention in post-dictatorial societies in the region, particularly since the 1990s, with policies such as affirmative action surging in Brazil in the 2000s as a result of such engagement. In the case of Brazil, the 1988 Constitution explicitly established clauses concerning a plurality of identities within the country, setting land rights for slave-descending quilombola communities, and granting clearer paths towards indigenous land rights. It also foresaw forms to attenuate regional discrepancies in a country where the whiter South and Southeast have had larger privileges and leverage, whereas other regions have suffered more with extreme social desperation, and poverty. 

Latin America is racially diverse, and the legacy of colonialism has endowed it with deep structural racism. In Brazil, Black and brown populations correspond to 56.2% of the population. In Colombia, unlike with Brazil’s consolidated racial classifications, the 2005 census led to disparities between social movements’ claims and self-ascription of interviewees. Nevertheless, in parts of the country mainly in the Pacific coast, Afro-Colombians were 75% of the population of certain municipalities. In Mexico, home of the largest total number of indigenous peoples, data on Afro-Mexicans has been under scrutiny and intense debate due to a racialized poor assessment of such a group. Despite these demographics, even as racialized nation-building projects unfolded in the region, notions of racial cohesion or plurality became mainstream in Latin America. These are often known under the umbrella term mestizaje or its Portuguese-language counterpart miscigenação. In Mexico, a majority of mixed race/mestizo Mexicans serve as the archetype of the average citizen and of the nation itself, perhaps most memorably epitomized in José Vasconcelos’ La raza cósmica (1925), even though scholarship has proposed a more nuanced view on it. In Brazil, conversely, the celebration of a multi-racial society that included a segment of mixed race – a different form of cohesion – can be observed in Gilberto Freyre’s 1933 book Casa-Grande & Senzala (titled The Masters and Slaves in the English-language edition). Freyre’s assessment provides a rosy view over colonialism and underscores alleged particularities of Portuguese colonists who would’ve had more benevolent attitudes towards the colonized, unlike their Spanish and English counterparts. This notion of racial harmony has been deemed as “the myth of racial democracy” by a cohort of authors who have underscored the harsh consequences of colonialism, particularly having been Brazil the place of destination for about half of the enslaved people trafficked to the Americas. From the 1940s on, this rhetoric gained state support. Activism of non-white groups has been crucial for a broader understanding of Latin America, as social movements underscore the deep inequalities generated by structural racism, affirming how reality diverges from rosy depictions of racially-diverse societies.

Despite these booming intellectual discussions across the region, perceptions of Latin America and Latinx populations in the United States often reproduce racial stereotypes under scrutiny in the region. The vision of brown-skinned homogeneity or prevalence more recently echoed by movies such as Coco (2017), Encanto (2021), and In the Heights (2021) imply colorism-derived ideologies of colorblindness, which each in their way advocate for a “the lighter the better” form of racism. Regarding In the Heights, Dominican Americans were crucial to the neighborhood that inspired the movie, but Black Dominicans were eclipsed by white Latinx characters. But if Hollywood reproduces idealized homogeneities, the Latinx community itself, due to the prevalence of a certain background within a given community, also does. One such homogeneity is language. Spanish is not the only language spoken in Latin America, nor the only language spoken by Latinx groups in the US, whose origins include as different places as Haiti and Bolivia. Besides the many indigenous languages still existent in the Latin American region that survived colonialism such as Quechua, Aymará, and Guarani, among many others, Latin Americans also speak other Romance languages such as Portuguese, French. There are also dozens of creole languages spoken in Latin America that sometimes incorporate non-Romance languages (Papiamento’s Dutch components, for example). Spanish is an important factor of identification among Latin Americans and Latinx peoples, bringing communities together, and encouraging associations that push for full citizenship rights. However, it is not necessarily language that bonds them. 

Nor is race a homogenous source of identity. The self-reproducing mestizaje myth implies that Latinx people are all brown-skinned and cannot be Black, indigenous, or even white. Given the plurality of peoples who live in Latin America and the various identities of those who migrated to the US, one should expect to see a more diverse representation of us in this country. But this does not happen. Brazilians, Haitians, and other non-Spanish speakers often perceive “Latinx” as exclusionary and tied to a particular form of indigenous, white, and lighter-skinned mestizo identity that is foreign to them. Even Spanish-speaking migrants do not identify themselves with this term.  Would a white Argentine living in glitzy Brickell, Miami, necessarily identify with a Guatemalan in Los Angeles? Would a Brazilian blue-collar worker in the Boston area identify with Orlando’s upper-class Brazilian diaspora? Does the Haitian American community identify with the term Latinx? Not necessarily, and often US citizens with those backgrounds will also cast votes differently in the ballot. 

Latin America was a site of colonialism and post-independence struggles, which marginalized communities of color, who did not enjoy the privileges of whiter upper-classes. It is naive to think these dynamics would not reproduce within the United States, which also has its Anglo racial structures, and whose territories, in part, also once pertained to the “official” Latin America. But reporters on MSNBC still express a certain surprise when Latinx voters declare their Republican affiliation, as if all of them should be necessarily affiliated with the Democratic platform. The use of the dying term “Hispanic” further complicates identification. The root of that term lies in the Roman-era province of Hispania, which covered today’s Iberian peninsula, and which became differentiated from Lusitania, roughly located within the limits of Portugal (the Lusitani were indigenous peoples of Western Iberia). Non-Spanish-speaking Latinx, therefore, tend to dismiss the term, and this is a reason why in forms it often appears as “Latino or Hispanic.” However, it is still preferred by many Latinx and is used in official designations, even in nation-wide associations. As terms, Latin America and Latinx intersect in many ways, and both are complex, multi-layered, concepts. Celebrating the Latine and Hispanic Heritage Month at Georgetown should mean dealing and confronting these variations, and acknowledging that there is no singular latinidad. The Spanish term evokes a basket of commonalities that would bond Latinx and Latin American folks. But we are not homogeneous, even if we do share traits. I sympathize with the Global South struggles of my fellow Brazilian, Colombian, Argentinian, and Mexican friends. But I do not think that my Mexican American and Cuban American friends are always aware of the privileges inherent to holding a US passport. Yet, I am conscious of my own privileges as a lighter-skinned person whose identity shifts depending on circumstance, but which still flags me as an “outsider.” We should then think of latinidades, in the plural form. This way we can deal with contradictions, convergences, and divergences among Latinx and Latin Americans.

Image from “Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” Skyline Education, https://www.skylineschools.com/celebrating-hispanic-heritage-month/

João Gabriel Rabello Sodré was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He obtained a law degree (LL.B) from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in the second semester of 2011. As part of his legal training, he had two internships in the private sector, where he worked at a law firm and a multinational oil & gas company. In 2015, he became a civil servant at the Public Defender’s Office of the State of Rio de Janeiro, a body that provides free legal assistance to those in need. In 2017, he left his position in order to pursue a second MA degree in the United States. In 2019, he started the PhD program at Georgetown.

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