When it Comes to Latinidad, Who Is Included and Who Isn’t?

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

At the top of November 2018, an Instagram meme created by writer Alan Pelaez Lopez went viral. The Afro-Indigenous (Zapotec) activist placed the term Latinidad on a car making a sharp right turn at an exit. At the top of the image, the road sign that points ahead lists, “admitting racism & anti-Blackness exists & a commitment to build solidarity with Black and Indigenous people.” The arrow pointing right notes, “mestiza supremacy & your insistence that your great-great-great-great grandmother was Black.” The car, which moved in the latter direction, symbolizes the ideologies of Latinidad.

A few days later, Pelaez posted on their Instagram account that “Latinidad is canceled.”

With each repost or share, Latinxs, a large percentage identifying as Afro-Latinx and/or Indigenous, championed Pelaez Lopez’s meme and called for cancellation. Others, many who would be racialized as white or mixed-raced (mulatto or mestizo) Latinxs, contested the message.

Though positioned as an all-inclusive cultural identity, Latinidad has historically proven to be a term beneficial to a select few. Gauging one’s proximity to whiteness – gender, sexual preference and able-bodied privileges included – Latinidad incites the question, who is included and, ultimately, excluded from its definition?

“Colonialism makes it so that people invest in the ideology of whiteness. What I do get a lot publicly is the folk who want to give pushback who assume that all of the content that is created is being divisive,” says Pelaez Lopez of their memes. “What am I dividing? What power can I possibly have as somebody who is Black from Mexico and in the spectrum of GNC (gender non-conforming)? What power do I possibly have over this global movement?”

As a movement in the U.S., Latinidad suggests that despite varying nationalities, racial and gender identities, generations, languages, immigrant status and mobility, among other factors, Latinxs are united under the term and identity. Whether directly from one of the 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries or born in the states, Latinxs with the most privilege (white, straight, cis gender, wealthy, able-bodied men) are centered. The closer a person is to that ideal, the more privileges and access they obtain on a daily basis. The pseudo solidarity that the term provides serves as a cover for the existing cracks in its foundation.

“As Black as I am, and as proudly Black identified as I am, and as proudly Black Panamanian as I am, [Latinidad] serves me nothing.”

The construction of Latinidad pre-dates 20th century census data and the efforts of marketing and advertising agencies in the 1970s. Though the terminology differed, access and mobility connected to mestizaje was evident. By the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadores who reached mainland North America, specifically Mexico and the Carolinas, were bringing Africans along for their expeditions. As voyages continued and travel expanded, there weren’t many “Spaniards of European lineage” available to settle in newly conquered areas, so it was left to “Hispanicized natives, mixed-bloods of all kinds, and Negroes,” as scholar Jack D. Forbes notes in his essay, “Black Pioneers: The Spanish-Speaking Afroamericans of the Southwest.” Stats show that in 1790s California, for example, 71.1% of Spanish-speaking settlers were of mixed origin, but these figures don’t erase the hierarchy that developed even amidst newly formed racial categorizations. For upper class Hispano-Americans, as well as the Spanish, racial ancestry and purity was still valued.

Whether reviewing Latin America’s casta – a system that determined advancement based on race/racial mixture – or the project of mestizaje – which erases race and flattens other identifiers in favor of a strategic, singular identity – it’s influenced the Latinidad many exist within today.

When asked who is included in the term, Yvette Modestin, founder and executive director of Encuentro Diaspora Afro, simply replies, “I’m not.” The activist, co-author and co-editor of Women Warriors of the Afro Latina Diaspora has spent more than 20 years educating and advocating for the rights of Afro-descendants from Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Latinidad leans on whiteness and creates even a white supremacist tone in the use of it,” she says. “As Black as I am, and as proudly Black identified as I am, and as proudly Black Panamanian as I am, it serves me nothing.”

Modestin addressed this during her keynote speech at the Dominican Student Association at Harvard University’s first-ever Afro-Latinidad conference in April. “How many of us can say I am Black, or soy negra, and not have it hyphenated? Ask yourself that question,” reflects the Colonese writer during our interview. “If you can’t accept that alone, then why? Then who are you trying to be? Who are you wanting to be? Who do you feel needs to see you?”

After journeying through identity, she’s clear that Blackness is her destination. She acknowledges that while she’s used the term Afro-Latina in the U.S. context to be seen in both spaces, it doesn’t do anything for her. “I don’t need it,” Modestin says of the term and ideologies it upholds. “I was adjusting to a space that never adjusted to me.”

“Latinidad is cancelled” has a ring to it, but it’s more than a catchphrase.

“Latinidad is cancelled” has a ring to it, but it’s more than a catchphrase. The embedded racism and colorism, sexism and homophobia, among other “isms,” affect those who exist furthest from the ideal the hardest. While we often hear of the systematic impact, the physical and psychological effects are equally as harmful.

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Tasha Brown notes that the “isms” affect individuals, particularly children and adolescents, differently, but without a doubt can lead to issues like anxiety, depression, insecurities and self-doubt. “In your formative years, if your identity development is formed with this lens of racism, it impacts how you think about yourself and what you think you can do, where you think you can go and how you navigate the world.”

While it’s unfortunately impossible to completely avoid being a victim of racism, Brown highlights protective factors (i.e. being in community) and coping strategies (which can range from exercise and therapy to medication) that can help people power through oppression.

Can Latinidad course correct from cancellation?

“[If] Latinidad had an end goal to address global anti-Blackness and to address mass amount of genocide of Indigenous people, queer and trans people, and women and different folk in the Americas, then that could be a Latinidad that could really transform not only Latin American people but the world…,” Oaxaca, Mexico-born Pelaez Lopez says. “But, right now, it seems that the goal of Latinidad is to be accepted by white United Statians as opposed to the goal of Latinidad existing to address global anti-Blackness, particularly because Latin America has the largest population of Black people outside of Africa.”